Women and men think differently, so it is no surprise that they would have different experiences when it comes to addiction and recovery as well. Women and men use drugs for different reasons, in different ways, experience addiction differently, and even relapse for different reasons. This is why it is important to look at issues facing women specifically when treating their substance abuse problems.
What to know about being a woman in recovery
In the early stages of treatment in rehab, women have many fears about getting help for their addiction. They worry that their family won’t be able to function without them, or that they’ll lose custody of their children. Many feel guilty leaving their children, partner or job to take the time to address their addiction in treatment. It can also be hard for women to accept that their addiction is not just a social habit, it is something they do to unwind or have more energy, often seeing their addiction as a result of anxiety, mental stress, or depression, instead of acknowledging the addiction as a problem on its own. Fear of being judged and financial concerns are also some of the top reasons women struggle to get help for substance abuse problems.
Women have specific challenges in recovery
Once a women completes treatment, she still has many challenges she will not have to face sober. There are many obstacles in early recovery that if left unaddressed, could pose substantial relapse risks for women. Here are a few common relapse triggers we talk about in women’s groups at Better Days treatment:
Relapse Triggers for women in recovery
- Undiagnosed mental health problems – The amount of responsibilities that women find themselves taking on (work, parenting, finances, school responsibilities, etc) is increasing every day, leading to many women feeling overwhelmed, unsupported and anxious or depressed. Many women turn to alcohol, anxiety pills or stimulants in an attempt to self medicate and go on with their day. Research shows about half of all people who suffer from a substance use disorder also experience mental illnesses, some of the most common being anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder and ADHD. While it is well-known that mental disorders and addiction frequently co-occur, many women may suffer from undiagnosed mental health problems, which increases the odds of self-medicating behaviors and relapse.
- Addiction stigma and lack of support – Women who are married to or romantically involved with partners who are actively abusing drugs or alcohol are much more likely to relapse due to a lack of support at home and pressure from their personal relationships. Since women are also more likely to relapse due to negative emotions and interpersonal problems than men are, women may find it difficult to stay sober if they are experiencing relationship stressors like divorce or separation. Many women fear stigma and being judged as a bad other if they are abusing substances and have children, causing them to hide their addiction and not reach out for help.
- Romantic relationships in early recovery – Jumping into a relationship too early on in recovery can pose serious risks for sobriety due to the emotional reactivity that can occur in new relationships (especially if the new partner is also in recovery). A romantic break up can bring up all kinds of negative feelings increasing cravings to use to numb the heartbreak. For women, a relapse following a breakup is often due to feelings of low-self worth, interpersonal issues and conflict, and losing their focus on their personal recovery. Since dating in early recovery can present challenges for recovery, it is often a good idea to cut off dating until further in your sobriety.
- Unrecognized addiction to love, sex, or relationship – It’s not uncommon for both women and men to experience other types of addictions that contribute to their substance use disorder, such as an addiction to sex, love, or relationships. Many women may find that they are continually drawn to unhealthy relationships in recovery and may associate substance abuse with their relationship history. Some women may not even realize they have traits of love addiction or codependency until they have a safe space to process their past relationships and trauma. Often, avoiding issues from past relationships, previous trauma/ abuse, and self esteem issues can contribute to the development of addictive behaviors and can make it difficult to stay sober.
- Poor coping skills – Since research shows women are more likely to relapse due to negative emotions and interpersonal conflict, addiction treatment needs to provide effective training on how to deal with difficult emotions; anger, sadness, poor self esteem and conflict to strengthen women’s ability to cope with stressors and avoid relapsing in difficult times.
- Food/Body Concerns – Some women initially begin abusing drugs like stimulants to lose weight or turn to addictive diet pills to maintain their figure. Once they stop using these pills, they may experience weight gain, and mood swings, starting the cycle of body image issues all over again. Women also use disordered eating as a way to control aspects of their life and therefore eating disorders and addiction often are co-occurring. If left untreated, an eating disorder that has not been addressed can also be a relapse trigger after treatment. It is important to look out how we few food, control and our body image when working on our recovery.
- Complacency – While enrolled in a transitional housing program, many women will experience stressful situations they did not experience while in a structured rehab. Many sober living programs are designed to help clients manage real life situations while maintaining their sobriety, and stress can still play a large role in relapse. Boredom can also prove to be a trigger when there is too much down time after leaving a structured treatment episode.
- Mood – After the happiness and euphoria of “the pink cloud” fade, some women may feel tempted to use drugs again in an effort to improve their mood or to self-medicate. Often times in early recovery, both men and women feel a void that was once filled with their substance abuse. Feelings of depression and lack of self-care are also common during this time. It is important to continue to attend therapy sessions to address the underlying reasons for you and develop plans for how to feel any voids a woman may feel as she continues to grow in her recovery.
- Intimacy – After committing sobriety, intimacy can feel intimidating and may be difficult to think about without the aid of alcohol or drugs. Many women that have experienced sexual trauma have coped with substance abuse and in sobriety are forced to work through their intimacy and trauma issues without the aid of drugs and alcohol. This can be triggering and difficult, but it is possible to have successful and mutually respectful relationships in sobriety!
- Self-Esteem – Young girls who start using drugs and alcohol early in life often do so to increase their confidence or to fit in with a specific peer group. This remains a common reason for drug and alcohol abuse in adult women as well. Women in early recovery may need extra support from sober peers and female mentors to build their confidence and self-esteem without the use of drugs and alcohol.
- Hormonal changes – Poor nutrition and toxins in the body during active addiction can disrupt a woman’s hormones. In recovery, additional hormonal changes such as menopause, a woman’s monthly cycle, PMDD, and even just stress can add to the mix, causing feelings of depression, anxiety, overwhelmed, mood swings and exhaustion. These emotions could trigger addictive behaviors or relapse.
- Recovery milestones – Recovery milestones such as sobriety birthdays can actually become a relapse trigger for many women. In some cases, a woman may feel like she has achieved a significant amount of time in sobriety and therefore can control her usage. Often woman may believe, after a certain amount of time in sobriety, that they can have a glass of wine at dinner, a glass of champagne at a wedding or smoke marijuana at a party- but these lapses often lead back to full relapses and eventually to uncontrolled usage.