Gender Matters — Addressing the Unique Issues Women Face in Addiction Recovery

In the United States, 2.7 million women abuse substances and 40 percent of alcoholics are women. When it comes to addiction, women face very different challengesfrom their male counterparts.

Of the challenges women face in addiction recovery, fear of stigma and losing their families ranks high. It can be more difficult for women to seek treatment because they often make less money, have less support from friends and relatives, and may lack access to childcare.

Women abuse substances in different manners and for different reasons. As a result, addiction treatment for women must adopt different strategies, including an emphasis on empowerment, experiential therapies and hormonal assessments.

women face in addiction recovery

Why Do Women Abuse Substances?

Before we can address the unique challenges women face in addiction recovery, it’s important to understand the reasons women abuse substances and the process by which they become addicted. As with a man, a wide range of factors can contribute to a woman’s addiction, but theycan vary dramatically.

Female hormonal cycles play a strong role in the development of addiction. Women are more likely to experience cravings at different times during their menstrual cycle. Relationships with others also play a role in the progression of addiction for women; many women in recovery report they were first exposed to substances by a romantic partner. Women may also drink more heavily to fit in with male colleagues or abuse stimulant drugs to lose weight.

For as many as 85 percent of women in recovery, a past history of abusehas contributed to feelings of emotional pain and low self-esteem. These are often the driving factors in women’s substance abuse issues. Addiction specialists like sociologist Judith Grant, the author of “Charting Women’s Journey’s: From Addiction to Recovery,” have noted issues like low self-esteem almost never come up for men in recovery.

How Do Women Become Addicted?

Drugs and alcohol have a stronger physiological effect on women than they do on men. Alcohol, for example, affects a woman twice as strongly as it does a man. This leads women to become dependent more quickly. It also causes them to suffer more physical damage as a result of substance abuse.

Chemical dependence may be harder to spot in women, because they’re more likely to hide it out of the fear of stigma. They’re more likely to abuse substances alone or in small groups at home. Women may have less visible professional roles that can help them hide substance abuse at work. As a result, addiction is allowed to progress further in women before treatment is sought — if it is sought at all.

What Barriers to Treatment Do Women Face?

Women face barriers to treatment that men do not. Aside from the increased stigma placed on women’s substance abuse issues, women frequently struggle to afford treatment because they earn less money.

Women also typically play a vital family role as caregivers. Husbands, children and elderly parents may rely on their chemically dependent wives, mothers and daughters for care. Thus, leaving the home to seek treatment becomes problematic. A family that relies on an addicted woman for daily care may not be capable of fully supporting her recovery; the woman herself may fear losing or leaving her family.

How Should Treatment Address Women’s Issues in Recovery?

The unique issues women face in chemical dependency and recovery call for treatment approaches that differ somewhat from those used with men. For women recovering from addiction, empowerment is crucial. Many of these women have been ignoring their needs and feelings for a long time.

Relational therapy, which helps women get in touch with their needs, feelings and thoughts while building strong friendships with others, is a valuable recovery tool for addicted women.

An assessment of the woman’s hormonal cycle, and how it affects her mood and substance abuse patterns, should also be incorporated into the treatment plan along with physical, psychiatric, spiritual and nutritional therapies.

Experiential therapies help women come to terms with difficult feelings and experiences. These can include:

  • Narrative therapy, which is designed to help the addict see herself as separate from the addiction.
  • Motivational interviewing, which can help addicts of both genders clarify their reasons for changing.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy, which promotes mindfulness.

Of course, expressive therapies like art therapy or journaling can also help recovering women work through the issues behind their addiction.

Women struggling with chemical dependency typically face different challengesthan their male peers. These challenges have their roots in women’s differing social roles and professional lives, as well as their unique emotional challenges. Treatment methods must take women’s issues and experiences into account to be successful.

About the Author: Laura Monaghan has been a counselor at Rehab Hotline for two years. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, she suggests visiting their site.

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