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Boys v. Girls: Gender Differences in Substance Use Disorders and Recovery



Women are just as susceptible to drug and alcohol addiction as men. However, some things make their recovery process different. 

Some of these differences have to do with the way women’s bodies respond to drugs and alcohol; some have to do with societal expectations of women, and others are related to underlying conditions like depression or anxiety. 

The good news is that if you’re a woman in recovery, there are plenty of resources out there that understand how your gender affects your path through treatment and beyond. 

In this article, we’ll go over some common questions about women’s substance use disorders (SUDs) along with how they might differ from men’s SUDs in terms of prevalence rates, risk factors, symptoms, and complications during treatment. 

We’ll also discuss how understanding these unique characteristics can help shape strategies for achieving long-term sobriety while maintaining overall health.


Table of Contents

Women may be in more danger than men when it comes to relapses

While there are many similarities between men and women with this disorder, there are also some significant differences that you should be aware of.

First, a larger percentage of women than men experience relapse after completing treatment for substance use disorders. 

A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 60% of women had relapsed within two years after completing treatment, compared to only 45% of men.

While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this is the case, one thing is clear: Women have a higher risk of death from overdose than men. 

This may be because they are more likely to use alcohol and drugs together or because they suffer from depression and anxiety—both risk factors for relapse in general—more often than their male counterparts.


1. Women experience unique challenges when it comes to overcoming substance addiction

Women experience unique challenges when it comes to overcoming substance addiction. 

Women are more likely than men to have an underlying mental health condition in addition to addiction, and women also experience physical effects from drugs and alcohol at lower doses. 

One study found that women were affected by societal and media pressure, particularly during their teens. 

For example, certain movies may show women drinking heavily with no consequences on screen; this can lead young girls to believe that this behavior is okay for them too, or even desirable.


2. Women are biologically more sensitive to the effects of drugs and alcohol

The biological differences between males and females also play a role in substance use disorders. 

Generally, women are more sensitive to the toxic effects of drugs and alcohol than men. 

For example, it takes about 25% less alcohol for a female to become intoxicated than for a male. Women are also more likely than men to experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using substances (Kessler et al., 1994). 

Women may have greater difficulty quitting because they experience cravings for drugs or alcohol more often than men do (Kessler et al., 1994).

Men tend to develop dependence faster than women, but this may be due at least partially to gender-related psychological characteristics such as impulsivity or sensation seeking, which influence drug use patterns (Cottler et al., 1996). 

Moreover, some studies suggest that there is little difference in severity between men’s and women’s problems with substance abuse once they occur; 

however, these studies have been criticized on methodological grounds including lack of statistical power due primarily but not exclusively related directly correlated with sample size considerations (Lewis & O’Brien).


3. Women are affected by societal and media pressure, particularly during their teens

You may be surprised to learn that women are affected by societal and media pressure, particularly during their teens. 

Women are more likely to be affected by peer pressure than men, which is why you’ll find many more teenage girls taking drugs and drinking alcohol than teenage boys. 

Women are also influenced by societal pressures—the expectations of what it means to be a woman in our society can influence when and how someone decides to use drugs or drink alcohol. 

In addition, the media plays an important role in influencing young people’s habits: commercials for drinks or fast food often depict happy couples enjoying themselves at nightclubs or restaurants, while anti-smoking commercials tend not to portray people having fun but rather dying from cancer. 

And finally, female celebrities have been known to glamorize drug use as part of their careers (think Amy Winehouse), which can lead impressionable youth down paths they never intended on taking.


4. Women often have an underlying mental health condition in addition to addiction

Women are more likely to have certain mental health conditions in addition to their addiction. 

These include depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bipolar disorder. They’re also more likely than men to experience schizophrenia.

These underlying conditions can contribute to drug use or make treatment more difficult for women with substance use disorders. 

For example, if a woman is dealing with depression while attempting sobriety, she may be tempted by drugs to self-medicate her symptoms.


5. They may use substances as a means of self-medicating their symptoms

Gender differences in risk for substance abuse and recovery have been well-documented. 

It is estimated that women are more likely to suffer from mental health disorders than men, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. 

Women are also more likely to experience childhood sexual trauma than men. 

Additionally, certain chronic illnesses that affect a higher percentage of women than men, such as fibromyalgia and migraine headaches, can lead to an increased risk of self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.


Men and women both need support from loved ones as well as from trained professionals when getting clean from drugs and alcohol

If you are struggling with substance use, it is important to know that your loved ones can support you in recovery. 

It’s also important for them to understand that getting help for a mental health condition like addiction doesn’t mean you’re weak or crazy. 

The opposite is true: it takes a lot of courage and strength for someone to admit they have a problem and ask for help.

It’s equally important that friends and family get educated about substance use disorders so they can better understand what the person they care about is going through. 

If your loved one has a substance use disorder, try talking with them about their symptoms or behaviors so both of you can get some clarity on how serious the problem might be (or might not be). 

Then brainstorm ways that each of you can support each other during this difficult time—and be prepared! 

Recovery should never feel like an impossible goal; rather it should feel like something achievable with hard work and perseverance.

Takeaway: Everyone is different but there are particular things women need to know about addiction recovery

Everyone is different, but there are some things that women need to know about addiction recovery.

  • Women are more likely to be affected by societal pressure. Women may feel more compelled than men to conform to the expectations of others, so they may turn to drugs or alcohol to fit in with their peers or avoid negative consequences if they don’t use drugs.
  • Women often have underlying mental health conditions. Depression, anxiety, and eating disorders are disproportionately common among women compared with men—and these conditions can make it easier for some people (especially those who struggle with substance use disorders) to get caught up in addictive behaviors like drug abuse and alcoholism.
  • Women tend more toward self-medication of symptoms rather than the recreational use of substances like alcohol or marijuana. This means that a woman may not recognize herself as being addicted until she’s already developed a dependency on a substance; when this happens early enough in her life cycle, it can lead her down an especially destructive path toward full-blown addiction later on down the line (if not sooner).



As we’ve seen, women and men experience addiction differently and need to be treated differently. 

Women have unique challenges in overcoming substance abuse disorders and should seek treatment that addresses the differences between the sexes. Men can learn how they can help their loved ones get healthy, too!

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