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How Women Differ from Men in Drug and Alcohol Abuse – and How This Impacts on Treatment

Woman drinking alcohol at table looking sad while holding bottle of pills

Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction affect all genders and the experience of each is unique. Partly based on our biological differences and further influenced by societal expectations and norms, the way adults fall into the vicious cycle of addiction shows a pattern. To help people better, we can study that pattern. Today, we’re looking at why women drink and do drugs – and how their experience differs from men.

If you’re concerned about the drug and alcohol abuse of a friend or family member, please call Help Me Stop before it gets worse. For details on our groundbreaking and accessible Dayhab programme, please visit this page.

A recent history.

Alarmingly, decades of research into addiction and substance abuse was oriented almost entirely towards men. Major universities in America only began researching the female experience of addiction in the 1990s, instituting requirements for participants to include women.

It was like a light being turned on. Suddenly, research flooded in that highlighted clear differences between genders in how they experience and are drawn into substance abuse and addiction. Immediately, we could see that women are approximately half as likely as men to develop a substance abuse disorder, but are more likely to seek immediate medical help. Paradoxically, they’re also more likely to overdose when abusing substances.

Differences defined.

With several decades of scientific research behind us, we have an increasingly clear picture of the biological and societal pressures that compel men and women towards substance abuse and addiction. With much of the research on the subject provided by the Harvard Medical School, we have real evidence in the following areas of how we differ in our experience.

Becoming addicted: While addiction research shows that men are much more likely to become addicts and to abuse drugs and alcohol due to pressure from their peers, we also know that women are more likely to progress more rapidly from starting to use drugs and alcohol to the point where they develop problems, such as dependency – a phenomenon known as “telescoping”. They also tend to self-medicate more often with illegal substances.

Relapsing: Studies show that men relapse less often than women, whereas women tend to experience feelings of craving stronger than men. This may explain their higher likelihood of relapsing.

Age: While studies can vary, a trend has been seen in addiction where girls aged 12 to 17 are more likely to abuse drugs they are given by their doctor, particularly opioids and stimulants.

Recovering: Women tend to be more at risk of overdosing and of having strong experiences of side-effects. In general, men are more likely to catch their substance misuse at a milder stage before it progresses into addiction. They also tend to experience stronger alcohol withdrawal symptoms than women.

Alcohol: Studies indicate that women are more at risk of developing a dependence on alcohol when consuming smaller amounts. While men previously were several times more likely to have alcohol abuse disorders, statistics show the rates between men and women to rapidly be approaching even.

Stimulants: Interestingly, research suggest estrogen influences how dopamine and the ‘reward’ of doing stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine are experienced. Overall, men and women are roughly equally likely to become addicted to stimulants, although women tend to succeed in recovery more than men.

Opioids: Women appear to develop a dependence on opioid drugs faster than men, possibly due to a stronger dopamine response in the brain. Despite this, men abuse opioids and fatally overdose on them more often than women.

Social Impact/Barriers to engagement: We know that women use drugs and alcohol not just for pleasure, but to cope with difficult life circumstances such as domestic abuse. There are clear links between experiencing abuse and trauma and having problems with drugs and alcohol. This can prevent many women from presenting at services where there is a perception that these are predominantly male-dominated. In some types of services this may be the case, but not in all. With the advent of online treatment such as Digital Dayhab, women don’t even need to physically come in anywhere to access the treatment they need.

Then there are the conflicting images of motherhood and drug and alcohol use where women fear that their children will be taken into care if they disclose that they have problems. Lastly, many women do not approach services or underplay their use when talking to a professional.

We can all help. Here’s how.

The most important thing to remember when considering how to help someone abusing drugs or alcohol is the fact that getting help as soon as possible is always the best scenario. Chris Cordell, Help Me Stop’s General Manager says “too many people wait to reach their rock bottom before seeking help, making so much harder on themselves to get out of the hole they have created”.

The notion that you have to be physically addicted to seek professional help is false; addiction professionals gladly work with women and men who want to stop their behaviour before it becomes worse. It’s much easier to stop a rolling boulder at the top of the hill than three-quarters of the way down.

In 2020, this is possible more than ever before. Adults in the UK can access professional, intensive rehab programmes that are flexible and accessible at a fraction of the cost of traditional intensive residential treatment. They can even go to rehab online.

If you are concerned about a person you know and their substance abuse, you can help by starting the conversation now before it gets worse.

Help Me Stop is here to talk.

We’re right here for a chat if you have any questions at all. Please call us on 0208 191 9191 today or email the team directly.

*Chris is a senior associate member of the Royal Society of Medicine, Certified International Recovery Specialist, and a member of the International Society of Addiction Medicine.

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