Several factors are involved when women develop addictions. Physical makeup and psychological reasons related to societal pressures both play a part in substance use and abuse in women.
Physically, women are more markedly affected by drugs and alcohol compared to men, so when they use substances for relief from stress, they can become more easily addicted. Women face higher risks at lower levels of consumption than men, due to differences in average weight and metabolisms(1).
According to research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, psychological reasons also play a factor in women being more prone to addiction when compared to men (2). For example, women are more likely to abuse substances in response to societal pressures, such as the desire to be thinner to be considered more attractive, and to relieve stress from having a career and caring for a family.
When women experience difficulties with their jobs and internalize the resulting negative emotions, some turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate as a coping skill. For example, a woman may feel she isn’t living up to society’s ideal of “having it all” with career and family. She may turn to drugs or alcohol to relieve the negative and painful feelings.
Another example is a woman who has self-esteem issues and finds the issues create problems in her life. There is a lack of confidence to continue education, go for the desired job, find the right partner or to feel good about parenting abilities. Any one of these, or a combination of any of these, can lead a woman to self-medicate to escape overwhelming feelings of inadequacy.
Many women are the primary caregivers to children. Since childcare and parenting is an integral part of a woman’s role once they become mothers, issues of motherhood and child-rearing figure prominently in their lives. The pressure to be the “best mother” from society is great.
When women feel they are lacking in parenting skills or children aren’t living up to society’s expectations, the pressure and disapproval mothers perceive they are getting from society may lead them to abusing substances for relief.
Women are under a tremendous amount of pressure to be thin, and being overweight is seen as a character flaw. This is reflected in advertising where pencil-thin models are held as the ideal body types. Women who don’t feel like they measure up can sometimes turn to stimulant substances like nicotine, cocaine and amphetamines to lose weight or decrease appetite. Since weight loss is a long-term commitment for many, women taking these types of substances for long periods of time can easily develop an addiction.
The multiple roles of care-giving and parenting issues as well as low self-esteem and poor body image are all essential points to be addressed in treatment.
Women’s programs that recognize that females have a unique set of circumstances and pressures in society, and have developed effective treatment protocols for women, are more effective in addiction recovery and relapse prevention.