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  • Substance abuse occurs when you use a drug in a manner not recommended by your healthcare provider. For example, you might use a prescription drug without a prescription, use an illicit drug, or drink too much alcohol. 

    Like many other health issues, substance abuse affects women differently than it affects men. In particular, women may be more likely to experience certain causes of substance abuse. Here are five.

    1. Stress

    While stress affects everyone, women face an increased risk of certain types of stress. 

    For example, many mothers struggle to balance work with childcare, homecare, and other family responsibilities. Women under this type of stress may turn to drugs that make them feel disconnected from reality, such as alcohol, prescription sedatives, or hallucinogens

    In addition, lots of women have low self-esteem and stress about their appearance, especially their weight. Some of them abuse stimulant drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine to promote weight loss. They may find that controlling their weight helps them forget about areas of their life where they feel they lack control, such as at work or in their relationships. 

    Unfortunately, drug abuse makes you lose even more control of your life. That’s because it can lead to drug cravings, addiction, damaged relationships, and other serious issues.

    2. Trauma

    Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event. Common symptoms of trauma include:

    • shock
    • guilt
    • anxiety
    • depression
    • trouble concentrating
    • nightmares
    • aches and pains

    Women are more likely than men to experience certain traumatic events, including sexual abuse, childhood neglect or abuse, domestic violence, and sudden death of a family member.

    Many women who have experienced traumatic events try to numb their pain with drugs. For instance, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), women who have survived domestic violence face a much higher risk of drug abuse than other women.

    While drug or alcohol use may temporarily numb your trauma symptoms, it will only make you feel worse in the long run. That’s because drugs damage your mental health and intensify issues like anxiety, depression, and mood swings

    3. Mental Health Disorders

    Compared to men, women face higher rates of multiple mental health problems, including:

    These conditions can be successfully managed with treatments like therapy, psychiatry, and wellness activities. However, some women try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

    As with stress and trauma, alcohol or drug use may temporarily ease mental illness symptoms. Over time, though, it will make your symptoms worse. When symptoms get worse, you may increase your drug use, creating a vicious cycle where your substance abuse and co-occurring disorders keep intensifying each other. 

    4. Chronic Pain

    Many people abuse prescription pain relievers, especially prescription opioids. Doctors often prescribe opioids to treat chronic pain. About 70% of chronic pain patients are women, which explains why women are more likely to be prescribed opioids. 

    At first, many women use opioids exactly as prescribed by their doctors. However, because the drugs can make you feel euphoric or “high,” they may eventually start abusing them by:

    • using them more often than prescribed
    • using higher doses than prescribed
    • mixing them with other drugs
    • crushing the pills and snorting them 
    • visiting multiple doctors to get multiple prescriptions of the same drug (also called “doctor shopping”)

    All of these behaviors can quickly lead to opioid use disorder (also called opioid addiction). This disease puts you at greater risk of various health problems, including fatal overdose. 

    5. Trouble Sleeping

    Poor sleep quality is a common risk factor for substance abuse and addiction. People who struggle with sleep may abuse sleeping pills as well as other substances that promote drowsiness, such as alcohol and anti-anxiety medications. 

    While sleep troubles can affect anyone, studies show they have a higher prevalence in women. 

    According to the Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, women generally take longer to fall asleep and sleep for shorter periods of time compared to men. 

    Also, more than one in four women suffer from insomnia (compared to fewer than one in five men). Insomnia is a disorder that makes it difficult to fall or stay asleep. 

    Treating Substance Abuse In Women

    According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), women face unique challenges when it comes to substance use disorders. For example, drugs can cause problems with menstrual cycles, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause.

    Similarly, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), women who struggle with alcohol use disorder (also called alcohol dependence) face a higher risk of alcohol-related health problems like brain damage, liver damage, and heart disease. 

    Gender-Specific Treatment

    This is why women should attend substance abuse treatment facilities that acknowledge how biological sex differences and culturally-influenced gender differences impact a woman’s experience of substance abuse. 

    These facilities often provide gender-specific treatments and interventions, such as:

    To learn more about substance abuse treatment programs, please contact an Ark Behavioral Health specialist. Our inpatient and outpatient treatment centers offer medical detox, cognitive behavioral therapy, and a variety of other alcohol and drug addiction treatment services.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Harvard Health Publishing - Women and pain: Disparities in experience and treatment
    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Women and Alcohol
    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women
    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - Insomnia
    U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs - How Common is PTSD in Women?

    Medically Reviewed by
    Kimberly Langdon M.D.
    on July 26, 2022
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