gender differences in addiction

Guest Post by John Kahal

Although it can honestly be called an equal opportunity destroyer, when considering gender differences in addiction and recovery, some unique features are revealed. Just as certain gender-related factors can contribute to substance preferences, how long it took to become addicted and which underlying issues might drive the addiction, distinct gender differences in addiction recovery are also notable between men and women.

For this reason, it is imperative that an effective addiction rehabilitation program acknowledges these gender differences in addiction processes and the recovery continuum. In this way, the specific needs of both women and men in recovery will be addressed, improving the overall recovery outcome for each.

The Gender Differences in Addiction Onset

Because men and women are physiologically and biologically different from each other, their bodies respond differently to drugs and alcohol.  Here are some of the ways that men and women differ in acquiring an addiction:

  • Women become addicted faster than men, but more men develop addictions
  • Because of higher fat content and lower over-all body weight, as well as producing less of the enzyme dehydrogenase that helps break alcohol down, women will achieve a higher blood alcohol level than men
  • The liver in a woman sustains more damage from alcoholism
  • Women are more likely to have a comorbid mood disorder, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders or borderline personality disorder
  • Women are more likely to be prescribed painkillers than men at higher doses than men, and more apt to continue using them long-term
  • Women tend to misuse opioids due to emotional issues, while men misused them for behavioral issues or legal problems
  • Alcohol kills twice as many women than opioids
  • Women are more likely than men to seek treatment for sleeping pill dependency
  • Women tend to use stimulants for weight loss more than men

The Differences Between Men and Women in Recovery

In our society, there is a higher stigma attached to a female in need of addiction treatment versus a male. Stigma, and the shame and fear associated with it, is one of the reasons that fewer females seek treatment. Other barriers include child-related responsibilities, fewer financial resources and the fear of losing custody of children.

Most addiction treatment programs are built on a model that is based on the male addict profile. Women may have gender-specific issues that have a more pronounced influence over their recovery journey, such as hormonal fluctuations or imbalances, a history of sexual or physical abuse or relationship issues. Programs that acknowledge these differences and adjust their programming for females accordingly will be more successful in guiding the women toward a sustained recovery.

Unique Challenges for Women in Recovery

Women are often better wired for relationships, emotional connection and nurturing. When these traits and needs are recognized and nurtured in rehab, the female client will be more responsive and trusting in the treatment environment. Women tend to be particularly more open to all-women group counseling sessions, as sharing their personal stories and feelings comes naturally in this type of setting and promotes healing.

Experiential therapies lend themselves well to women in recovery. While in treatment, therapeutic results from individual and group psychotherapy sessions can be greatly enhanced through various complimentary therapies. Women are particularly receptive to such things as art therapy, equine therapy, yoga, meditation, mindfulness training, guided imagery and journaling. These types of adjunctive therapies not only help reduce stress and promote relaxation, but also can help women delve deeply into their spiritual realm, examining areas of past pain and processing them. Holistic therapies such as massage therapy, infrared sauna and acupuncture are also said to be helpful in addiction recovery.

In early recovery, there is a high risk of relapse regardless of gender. This is the recovery phase that re-introduces the vulnerable, newly sober individual back into their daily lives following rehab. Women and men have slightly different motivations for having leaned on a substance in the first place. Although stress-reduction is common for both sexes, women may have relied on drugs for weight loss or to help reduce sexual inhibitions, for example. Following rehab, those issues may still exist, so overcoming the need to use drugs or alcohol for these perceived needs presents an ongoing challenge to sobriety.

Other issues that can trip up recovery, which are more prevalent among women, include:

  • Presenting with a dual diagnosis, or the coexistence of a mental health disorder with the substance use disorder
  • Impaired self-esteem or self-confidence
  • Financial problems that induce stress or anxiety
  • Residual feelings of shame and guilt
  • Vulnerability to relationship problems, which can trigger relapse
  • Parenting challenges, legal pressures or social services involvement
  • May suffer more severe health consequences due to past drug or alcohol abuse
  • Complacency or boredom in recovery

Aftercare for Women in Recovery

The aftercare component of recovery is intrinsic to a successful long-term outcome for both sexes. Women tend to be better than men at following through and continuing on with outpatient therapy services. Weekly psychotherapy and/or group sessions provide women with the connectiveness they thrive on, providing a layer of support and feedback in the early months of recovery to prevent relapse.

While co-ed 12-step or non-12 step recovery communities are useful, finding a women’s recovery group is ideal. There are some national programs, such as Women for Sobriety, that cater to women only. In addition, there are gender-specific offerings from A.A. and SMART Recovery to explore.

Women-only sober living accommodations are an excellent option for early recovery, allowing time in a supportive, drug and alcohol-free environment to practice new coping skills and recovery tools learned during treatment. Many of these women-specific sober living homes make allowances for children as well.

Yes, women are wired differently than men and face unique recovery challenges. While women may indeed recover differently from men, by addressing those differences and tailoring treatment and aftercare toward the specific needs of women, a successful, long-term recovery is possible.

About the Author

John T. Kahal is the founder and CEO of a private addiction and dual diagnosis treatment program for adults in California. After his own successful experience with the recovery process and journey, Kahal decided to create a unique program that was individualized for each client’s specific treatment needs. Kahal’s passion to share his own positive experience with others, while being a living example of the freedom found in recovery, is what motivates him to guide clients toward their own stable, long-term recovery.

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