Women and Addiction. It’s All in the Mind, Right? Maybe Not.


When we think of addiction, images often spring to mind of young, sometimes disenfranchised or chronically homeless men, veterans coping with PTSD, or professionals struggling to cope beneath work stressors. While some people acknowledge women’s addiction risks, others may not.

People may think women are usually on the receiving end of prescription medication for depression and anxiety. Broadly speaking, they are more likely to be thought about in the light of having emotional issues.

Historically described as highly strung, over-emotional, and even hysterical, the long-term consumption of mood relaxers was viewed more through the lens of a personal problem or issue rather than the highly publicized social deviance of male addiction and substance misuse.

Understanding Why

Even today, women are more likely to be prescribed anxiety-reducing medication, such as Xanax, than men. When mixing drugs and alcohol, they are more likely to consume alcohol with an antidepressant, versus alcohol and cannabis or methamphetamine, for example.

So, why are more women than men, in broad terms, likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety? Is it because women receive different kinds of stress and process it differently than men? Maybe women just visit their doctors more than men, therefore having greater visibility to the medical profession? Or is it because, historically, women are viewed as more susceptible to nerves, thus, making it less stigmatized as a diagnosis?

Despite all these assumptions people may make about women, there is still much to learn about gender and addiction. Women do consume more problematic substances such as methamphetamines and heroin. However, their pathway to substance misuse and treatment often differ significantly when compared to their male counterparts. 

The Pathway

As indicated above, the common denominator for women and addiction appears rooted in emotional pathways. Below are some of the life events or experiences that may lead women to self-medicate, which, left unchecked, may slide into addiction.  

  • It is widely acknowledged that men and women experience different brain chemistry; women process feelings differently, often internalizing and dwelling on issues that may lead to anxiety and depression over time.
  • Women are more likely to engage in the primary caregiving of children and aging parents. This may lead to caregiver burnout, a condition similar to depression that—left unresolved—can lead to self-medicating, including the use of alcohol as a means to cope.
  • Women are more likely to deal with physical and emotional intimate partner violence. The cycle of denial attached to this often leaves women in relationships during which they are subjected to continued abuse.

The Marketplace

Popular advertising celebrates women in wine bars, hosting wine parties, and even joining multi-level-marketing wine clubs. We are all in this together, the images seem to say as middle-class professional women fall over one another in the rush to sign themselves up for another monthly case of twelve red wines.

Does this happen due to stress or the pressures of work? Are happiness and relaxation out of the question unless women clutch a glass? At least that’s what the messaging tells us.

Created on family-friendly sites such as Etsy and shared on social media, messages proclaim “Mommy Needs Vodka,” to an audience of happy-faced and appreciative emoji responses, implying how we all agree that child care pressures drive this generation of moms to drink in the same way mothers popped valium during the 1970s. When mainstream messaging validates the fun antidote to stress is alcohol, the journey into the living room becomes relatively short.

Get Help

The real picture of consumption and dependency is rarely as advertised. It is essential to choose a treatment program that recognizes the unique circumstances women often find themselves in and how those circumstances may influence behavior and coping skills. 

Barriers to treatment should not prevent anyone from gaining sobriety or becoming drug-free; however, they may present, and it is worth taking a brief look at them.

  • Caregiving responsibilities.  If you are the sole caregiver or have sole custody of your children, attending a full-time residential facility can be challenging. It may be necessary for other reliable family members to help.
  •  Abusive relationship. Your partner may threaten you, or you may fear that if you attend full-time treatment, you might lose custody of your children. Obviously, every custody situation is different; however, if this situation sounds familiar, it might be a good idea to seek legal advice. At the very least, seek advice and safety planning from a domestic violence support advocate.
  • Financial limitations. Again, women’s financial situations often differ from men’s. Check your options. It might be possible to make payments or obtain coverage through insurance.

Moving Forward

Surrounded by commercial messaging, historical assumptions, and biological makeup, what can women do to help themselves?

Developing a deeper level of self-awareness is a good place to start. Think about your responses to social messages touting alcohol as the cure for a bad day. Beyond the humor, ask yourself “what am I being told?” Does the message imply you cannot cope and that alcohol is the only way?

When you are experiencing stress or anxiety-related issues, make sure to talk to your doctor about alternatives first. Is therapy an option as the first choice? If both you and your healthcare professional decide medication is right for you, make sure that counseling is prescribed alongside it to address the underlying cause.

Consider other ways to alleviate the stress that works and is sustainable for you. Look at lifestyle options to include yoga, meditation, hiking, and other outdoor activities if possible. Anything that provides an outlet to release pressure and tension. It may not make for primetime advertising, but it might prevent a relapse.


With higher chances of depression or anxiety, substance abuse among women is increasing. Hormonal changes, psychological stress, and social messaging can become a motivator for both drug and alcohol abuse. Women may also face more unique barriers to treatment than male counterparts, including limited financial means. Additionally, where intimate relationships are in difficulty, there may be credible fear that substance issues, depression, and anxiety may be used as a child custody weapon in family court. In therapy, establishing the underlying emotional triggers to addiction in female clients is essential in relapse prevention. Surrounded by the Rocky Mountains’ inspiring landscape, the Detox Center of Colorado offers a solution-based transitional residence program aimed at accountability and recovery.  No matter how far you’ve traveled on your journey to substance abuse or mental health recovery, we look forward to helping you explore the range of supportive treatment and aftercare options available to you.  Call the Detox Center of Colorado at (303) 952-5035. It may be the best thing you do for yourself today.

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