How Women Experience Addiction and Recovery

It’s no secret that addiction is a disease that does not discriminate. It has the ability to affect anyone, old or young, male or female. However, women experience addiction completely differently than men: their disease progresses faster, and they face distinctive barriers to treatment.

Issues faced by women are influenced by their sex (biological dissimilarities) and gender (disparities caused by social roles). Understanding these gender differences in addiction and recovery can be vital to those seeking answers about their substance use (or that of a female family member).

Research Bias: Men vs. Women

For decades, health research was conducted on men; the results were assumed to apply to the female half of the population. Today, we know that differences in hormone levels and physiology mean that women require their own representation in clinical trials.

Underrepresentation of female participants in these trials has been a major issue since the earliest days of the scientific method. Even devices and medicines primarily used by women may be tested by an overwhelmingly male group. This had the unfortunate effect of an assumed gender-neutral experience of addiction, when in reality, men and women experience the effects of substance use very differently.

How Women are Affected by Substance Use

While men have historically been more likely to develop a substance use disorder, women have steadily closed that gap in recent years. Part of this may be attributed to clinicians who did not ask about a woman’s substance use, instead diagnosing her with a mental health concern or mental illness.

Beyond social factors, women are biologically predisposed to be more strongly affected by drugs and alcohol. Hormones can make women more sensitive to the effects of some drugs, and use of these substances can disrupt the menstrual cycle, fertility or pregnancy. They may have more cravings and could be at a higher risk of relapse. It’s also known that women who use drugs experience more physical effects on their blood vessels and heart, along with different brain changes than those developed by men.


Substance use disorder will progress faster for a woman than a man. Telescoping refers to an accelerated progression from the start of one’s substance use to the onset of dependence and ultimate addiction. Research indicates that women present telescoping effects for opioids, cannabis and alcohol use in particular. This means that when female addicts seek treatment, they typically present with more advanced medical, behavioral and social issues than their male counterparts, even though they have used less of the substance over a shorter period of time.

Barriers to Treatment

Of the millions of American women with a substance use disorder, only a very small percentage will ever receive treatment. Compared to men with SUDs, women are more likely to have primary childcare responsibilities, be unemployed or underemployed and be at a socioeconomic and educational disadvantage.

While men are usually referred by doctors, employers or the legal system, women often try to find treatment by themselves (or, rarely, when prompted by friends, family or the legal system). This means that female patients may be less informed about treatment options overall, giving them serious misconceptions about the programs themselves.

Research also shows that women may be more significantly impacted by the stigma of addiction than their male counterparts. This is especially salient for women who are pregnant or have children. The resulting disapproval and lack of support from family, friends and employers can present a heavy burden to seeking treatment.

Gender-Specific Issues

Tailored treatment is important because each gender experiences a different array of challenges over the course of their lives. Many women with substance use disorders have a history of trauma, often in the form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common, and trauma-informed care is necessary for affected individuals. By getting to the bottom of these contributing factors, women can more fully understand their substance use and begin their recovery.

Differences in Recovery

While men enter treatment with an inflated sense of self, female patients are more likely to have a diminished view of themselves. They may see themselves as “fallen women” and are more likely to have experienced troubled relationships, poor self-esteem and family violence than men entering a program.

For all of these reasons, women with substance use disorders benefit greatly from supportive therapies and an environment of compassion, empathy and mutual respect, rather than the typical approach of confrontation. The insight of other women in treatment can provide a healing, safe space to untangle one’s past and create a new plan for the future.

A multimodal approach – one that consists of several different therapeutic methods – is especially effective for female patients. At Cumberland Heights, we provide group and individual therapy, family therapy and 12-Step meetings, along with specialized treatments like adventure therapy, art therapy and music therapy.

Addiction Treatment for Women

The Women’s Program at Cumberland Heights responds to the specific needs of female patients by addressing the physical, emotional and spiritual factors contributing to their substance use. Our curriculum covers body image, healthy relationships and parenting, along with other concerns unique to women. To learn more about our gender-specific programming, contact Cumberland Heights today.