One of the most important advancements in female addiction treatment is the recognition that a history of traumatic experiences plays an often-unacknowledged role in a woman’s physical and mental health issues. Research now shows that the majority of addicted women have suffered trauma or abuse at some point in their lives, and historically at higher rates and often more intensely than men. It’s clear that these experiences drastically increase the likelihood that a woman will abuse alcohol and drugs.
How Women React to Traumatic Events
When an individual experiences a traumatic event, it ends up forming a deep wound in the psyche, becoming etched in the memory and wreaking havoc if not addressed. Some people recognize the negative effects and try to ignore them while others don’t even realize damage was done. While women are similar to men in responding to trauma with anger and dissociation, females experience depression and anxiety more frequently.
Additionally, whereas men have a stronger response to being victims of trauma as opposed to being witnesses, women have similar psychological responses in both scenarios.
What makes trauma particularly difficult for women is the fact that their traumatic experiences are often perpetrated by people they know. This accounts for the increase in mental health problems for women because it’s especially distressing to experience harm by a person who is supposed to love and care for you. According to recent statistics, 25 percent of women have been the victim of severe physical violence from a partner and 90 percent of female child sexual abuse victims knew the perpetrator in some way, with 68 percent of these girls being abused by a family member.
Also complicating the issue is a woman’s propensity to blame herself after being abused, believing that she is responsible for her abuser’s behavior, which often leads to self-loathing.
Her trauma also has a greater likelihood of developing into PTSD, major depression or substance use disorder, with studies showing women are more than twice as likely to develop the disorder than men. This may cause them to:
- Re-experience the event through nightmares and flashbacks
- Avoid people or things that remind them of the event
- Become estranged
- Feel numb
- Be hypervigilant
- Have exaggerated startle responses
When Trauma Gets More Troubling
Years of avoidance, denial and/or meditation don’t always “fix” what has been altered in the brain. To cope with depression, stress or anger, many fall into unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking or doing drugs that lead to alcohol abuse and substance dependence. This generally results from the need to self-medicate in an attempt to ease their symptoms.
Drugs and alcohol become numbing agents or tools of avoidance for women dealing with past trauma or for those diagnosed with PTSD. To escape the memories and pain of the traumatic events, she may use these mind-altering substances and unknowingly become addicted, making her problems worse.
“Once women start down the path of addiction, they tend to progress more rapidly than men.”
While men resort to addictive behaviors to escape and distance themselves from the realities of their lives, female addiction is often a means of maintaining a relationship, filling a void or self-medicating the pain of abuse or betrayal. And once women start down the path of addiction, they tend to progress more rapidly than men, which is likely the result of the distinct challenges they face as a gender. In 2004, the United Nations published a study on the treatment of drug-addicted women around the world and found that many of the issues addicted women struggle with are shared universally, namely:
- Shame and stigma
- Physical and sexual abuse
- Fear of losing children
- Fear of losing a partner
- Lack of childcare services
- Lack of services for women
- Lack of financial resources
- Lack of sober housing
- Poorly coordinated services
- Long wait lists
Studies also show that women who had a traumatic experience and abuse alcohol or drugs are less likely to seek help. Practical concerns such as child-care arrangements, lack of support, lower income and responsibilities at home and work make the female’s healing journey especially trying. And while both men and women have the task of overcoming the stigma associated with seeking treatment, women are even more susceptible to being stigmatized, creating yet another barrier to getting the help they need.
Moving Past Trauma and Addiction
It’s important to remember that trauma is subjective, deemed as such by the individual’s internal beliefs and his or her innate sensitivity to stress – not someone else’s perspective. However, it’s not always easy to see that there’s a problem. Regardless of when the trauma-related experience took place, you can help yourself or your loved one overcome trauma and addiction by keeping the following in mind: