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How Drug and Alcohol Addiction Affects Women

Women are more susceptible to the harmful psychological and physical effects of alcohol and drug abuse.

  • Women’s bodies process alcohol less effectively than men’s, meaning they tend to suffer greater physiological damage as a result of alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Studies have shown that women find it harder to stop abusing drugs and alcohol once addicted.
  • Research suggests women are more vulnerable to relapse than men.
  • They are more likely to suffer psychological issues related to addiction (e.g. depression, PTSD, anxiety) and negative social outcomes (stigma, secrecy).

10 Ways Addiction is More Damaging to Women than Men

1. More physiological damage

Women’s organs are more susceptible to the damaging effects of alcohol abuse. This means that alcohol-related brain and liver damage generally progress more rapidly in women than in men. Women have lower levels of two hormones that break down alcohol in the liver and stomach, meaning more alcohol is absorbed into their bloodstreams.

2. Abuse leads to dependence more rapidly

Alcohol abuse in women progresses more rapidly into full-blown dependence than in men.

3. Abusive relationships stop women from seeking help

Women who have experienced abusive relationships, or neglect or abuse as a child, are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. An addicted woman currently in an abusive relationship may find it difficult to leave because of her responsibilities as a mother, or due to fear.

Jessica Tomlinson Hill, a Senior Specialist Therapist at Castle Craig, Sarmore Castle’s partner establishment, says that some women may, “unconsciously choose a partner that reinforces their addiction. This partner might be physically or emotionally abusive, but the woman will stay because at least he’s not challenging her drinking or using. Dysfunctional, unhealthy relationships for women who suffer from addiction tend to go on for much, much longer than for women who don’t suffer from addiction.”

Women who have experienced these relationships will likely be left with emotional and psychological scars, or even PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

4. Stigma and guilt

Women with addiction problems often face more stigma than men, increasing their feelings of guilt, shame and loneliness. This can make them more reluctant to speak about their problems and to seek the help that they need.

5. Fear of losing their children

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) annual World Drug Report showed that many women suffering from addiction problems avoid seeking treatment because they are afraid their children will be taken away from them.

This finding supports a 1995 study which appeared in the Journal of the National Medical Association. When women with addiction problems were asked their reasons for not seeking treatment, 55% said it was due to fear of losing custody of their children.

6. Secrecy

It is common for drug and alcohol dependent women to become very secretive about their behaviour, in order to hide their addiction problems from the world.

Joining Women’s Group therapy can be very beneficial for these women. It provides them with a safe space in which they can explore repressed emotions associated with their addiction such as guilt, shame, anger or sadness. Senior Therapist at Castle Craig, Smarmore Castle’s partner establishment, Jessica, says that female substance users, “go through life with a mask on and think ‘If people knew me and really knew what was going on, then they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.’” In therapy, women are “able to tell the truth about what’s happened…. And have other women say ‘I can relate to you. This also happened to me!’”

7. Codependency

Women in relationships where both partners are addicted to drug and alcohol frequently experience issues of codependency. This describes a pattern of behaviour where one partner seeks validation and approval from the other in order to feel a sense of self-worth. In addicted relationships, the woman may facilitate their partner’s drug or alcohol abusing behaviour because they are afraid to confront them about it and risk losing their validation. It becomes very difficult for either partner to leave because they become reliant on each other and enable each other’s addictive, self-destructive behaviour.

8. Eating Disorders

People suffering from an eating disorder are five times more likely than the general population to abuse alcohol or drugs. Research indicates that 50% of people with eating disorders have drug or alcohol addiction problems.

Eating disorders and alcohol and drug abuse are often interlinked, with characteristics such as shame, lack of self-control and low self-esteem common to both disorders. Those suffering from an eating disorder may start drinking heavily or using drugs in an attempt to manage their negative emotions.

9. Alcoholic parents increase the likelihood of addiction

Dr. Kelly, a therapist at Castle Craig, Smarmore Castle’s partner establishment, says it is common among addicted women that “they had come from a situation where their parent was an alcoholic, either the father or both parents. They had seen horrendous violence and we often found women who were self-harming and women who had attempted suicide. Children of alcoholics is a huge problem.”

10. Relapse triggers for women

Some studies suggest that women are more likely to relapse after completing an addiction treatment programme than men. David Sack, Addiction Psychiatrist, gives the five most common reasons that women relapse:

  • Embarking on a romantic relationship too soon after leaving therapy causes the former patient’s focus to shift away from their recovery. This leaves them vulnerable to relapse triggers.
  • Drug and alcohol addiction problems often co-occur alongside problems with love and sex addiction. This is because both patterns of behaviour stimulate the reward centres of the brain, leading to compulsive, addictive behaviour. If problems with love and sex addiction aren’t treated at the same time as alcohol or drug addiction, then this can be a major reason for relapse. While dating new romantic prospects the former patient may be exposed to alcohol and drugs, or they may start using again because a new partner does.
  • Untreated, co-occurring mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders can cause the patient to relapse.
  • Lack of social support can cause women to relapse. Alternatively, being married to a heavy drinker, or in a social network of heavy drink or drug users also reduces the chance of a successful recovery.
  • Poorer coping skills and lack of belief in their ability to deal with difficult emotions and interpersonal issues can also trigger relapse among women.

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Last updated & clinically assessed 4 February, 2021