The Importance of Gender-Based Groups in Addiction Treatment

Seeking addiction treatment is a courageous decision that puts many people in a vulnerable position they have not experienced before. For treatment to be effective, participants must open up and share difficult experiences in both group and one-on-one settings. These sessions may involve discussions of past trauma or current circumstances that are highly delicate and may be best to address in a single-gender treatment group.

The differences in addiction between men and women range from physiological to psychological and social, and many women find it is easier to engage with treatment in women-only programs. We’ll discuss how addiction differs for women and deserves a dedicated treatment approach.

Addiction Affects Women Differently

Addiction is a disease that progresses over five stages. Generally speaking, women move through the five stages differently than men do. Let’s examine the differences to expect at each stage.

1. Acquisition

This phase refers to the initial exposure to alcohol or drugs. Researchers believe women experience more emotional pleasure as a response to drugs, due partially to hormonal differences that affect the substance’s mechanism of action. Women are also more likely to start the acquisition stage to self-medicate conditions like chronic pain and anxiety, while men are more likely to engage in risky drug-taking behavior to gain more social acceptance and appear part of a social group.

2. Escalation

This phase marks a continual increase in the amount of a substance taken as well as the frequency of consumption. Women experience more rapid escalation than men, leading to full-fledged addiction more quickly, while men take longer to reach a state in which they can receive a diagnosis of a substance use disorder. More rapid escalation leaves people with less time to consider the emotions driving substance use, which means women may require more intensive emotional exploration to unravel the causes of their addiction.

3. Maintenance

This phase is where the addictive, drug-seeking behavior becomes the “new normal” and people begin displaying predictable patterns of drug and alcohol use. After more rapid escalation, women stabilize at a higher dose than men. For example, a man and woman who are both struggling with alcohol use can have dramatically different consumption habits, even if they began abusing the substance around the same time.

While the man might find himself drinking a six-pack every other day, the woman might stabilize at two bottles of wine or a bottle of hard liquor every few days due to the more rapid escalation phase. Because of this, the side effects of alcohol use are more severe and interfere more in daily life.

4. Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms vary between men and women and depend upon the substance of abuse. For example, women who quit smoking display increased negative affect during the withdrawal process, experiencing more stress than men. Withdrawal is often the most challenging phase of recovery, as its collection of painful symptoms can cause an immediate relapse. Medical detoxification helps reduce the physiological and emotional impacts of quitting drugs or alcohol and sets the stage for participants to move on successfully to therapy-based treatment.

5. Relapse

Women tend to relapse more frequently than men and fall back into substance abuse at more unpredictable moments. The more sporadic nature of women’s relapse may be due to the higher levels of stress, anxiety, and other emotional responses to withdrawal and the social challenges of recovery. As a result, gender-specific therapy may include a more pointed focus on coping with social and emotional triggers during recovery.

The Role of Trauma in Women’s Addiction

Trauma is a significant factor in the development of addiction, and women are at higher risk of experiencing traumatic events. While about half of all people experience one or more traumatic events in their lifetime, women are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.

Sexual assault is one of the most common sources of trauma for women struggling with addiction. One in five women experiences sexual assault in their lifetime, and nearly one in 10 has been assaulted by an intimate partner. The traumatic experience of such events, most frequently perpetrated by men, can dramatically alter the way women feel and act around men for the rest of their lives.

Providing therapy in women-only groups facilitated by female counselors and therapists can help mitigate the fear and discomfort women may feel discussing their experiences when men are present.

While men also struggle with trauma and sexual assault, they do so in fewer numbers and with different social stigmas attached. These stigmas are often best addressed in groups with other men, just as women can benefit from single-gender counseling in regards to trauma.

Women Heal From Trauma and Addiction Uniquely

Several barriers affect the way women seek and participate in addiction treatment. The following four factors tend to be unique to women, underpinning the need for gender-based groups in any treatment program.

1. Pregnancy and Motherhood

One of the worst stigmas women have to contend with is drug and alcohol addiction during pregnancy. People already tend to believe the misconception that addiction is a personal or moral failing, and when an unborn child is part of the situation, many are even quicker to pass judgment. It is unfortunately common for mothers-to-be not to seek help, for fear of the reactions of both care providers and fellow patients in a treatment program.

There is also a common fear that addiction treatment will not be safe for the baby. With opioid addiction, in particular, many women don’t realize effective treatment solutions improve the health of the baby by reducing the severity of neonatal abstinence syndrome. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists continues to recommend medication-assisted treatment as the most appropriate option for pregnant women.

Women with children at home may fear that seeking addiction treatment can result in the removal of the children from their custody, especially if their partner is unsupportive of their need to get help. For this reason, gender-based addiction treatment should address these concerns by providing referrals to or lists of local legal resources.

Even when all parties in the family are on board with the mother receiving treatment, there is often the matter of childcare to consider. Many women feel they do not have options for childcare during either residential or outpatient treatment and choose not to seek treatment in favor of caring for their kids. Unfortunately, this choice usually leads to continued drug abuse, which negatively impacts children.

2. Financial Dependence

The largest study of its kind suggests women face significant economic barriers to treatment, compared with men. Female clients of treatment programs tend to be younger, less educated, and less likely to have a job than their male counterparts. Women are more likely to be financially dependent on a partner and receive insurance through the partner’s employer, making treatment harder to access and sustain if the partner is not supportive.

Almost one-quarter of mothers are raising children on their own, which creates another strain on finances that may impact a woman’s ability to complete a treatment program.

3. Body Image

Body image refers to the way a person perceives and evaluates their body and their understanding of how others view their appearance. There is a close link between body image and overall self-esteem, and approximately 91% of women feel unhappy with their bodies. Many try to improve their body image by dieting, and drug use may also be a means of trying to change physical appearance.

Stimulants like cocaine, for example, have appetite-suppressant effects that can lead to rapid weight loss. If a woman finds drug abuse keeps her from gaining weight, she may continue the dangerous behavior as a result of her poor body image. Alternatively, a woman unhappy with her appearance may start drinking or using drugs to quiet the internal voice projecting feelings of inadequacy and unhappiness.

In cases where anxieties about body image fuel an addiction, dual-diagnosis treatment can help by addressing the mental health disorder behind the substance abuse.

4. Communication Style

There is no denying that men and women tend to have very different communication styles, which can clash when the two are together. Men tend to zero in on “report talk,” which centers on communicating factual information and reporting on specific events. Women, on the other hand, often engage in “rapport talk,” which is all about building relationships through the communication of thoughts and feelings without a particular goal in mind. In a group therapy session, these contrasting styles can result in frustration on both sides.

Men in the group may feel that women are “wasting time” with less direct communication, while women may believe the facts-first approach doesn’t get at the heart of the issue. For example, a man describing a traumatic event may focus on location and the specific sequence of events, where a woman might be more concerned with defining and exploring the emotions related to the event. Both approaches have pros and cons, but when most of the people in the group espouse one approach, the therapist can better steer the conversation toward productive discussion.

Benefits of Female-Only Groups in Rehab

The different needs of men and women in addiction treatment are evident, but how can gender-specific treatment groups improve the treatment experience? The following four benefits can result in better outcomes for women in rehab.

1. Fewer Distractions, Better Focus

Women often face significant pressure to behave a specific way in the presence of men. They may be unduly concerned with maintaining a particular appearance, or how others are perceiving their mannerisms. For instance, a woman in a mixed-gender group therapy session might get distracted by worries about which men in the group are making extended eye contact during sessions and why. Issues with romantic and sexual attraction — or the avoidance of it — create tensions that can undermine the important work done in therapy.

2. Increased Perception of Safety

Often, women who have experienced trauma or abuse perpetrated by men don’t feel safe in mixed-gender settings with unfamiliar men. While the men in the group might all be good people on one or more levels, mixed-gender groups put the burden of trusting and getting to know these men on women, which can cause distress and reduce the overall efficacy of the therapy.

Women-only rehab groups remove the tension and discomfort many women feel with strange men, allowing them to open up about their experiences and fears for the future. In the long run, women-only treatment can help repair gender-based trauma and enable participants to form healthier relationships with the other gender.

3. Increased Cohesion

Men and women often have different ways of addressing addiction. Research shows that women benefit more from therapies based on support, rather than confrontation. Many traditional rehabilitation programs take a “tough-love” approach that is less effective for women due to generally lower self-esteem upon treatment admission. Treatment retention and effectiveness for women improve with therapies grounded in support, safety, and nurturing. These traits link with greater treatment retention, which, in turn, results in better long-term recovery outcomes for those participating in a rehabilitation program.

4. Common Ground

Group therapy works most effectively when the majority of the group is facing similar sets of issues. There is no one-size-fits-all way to categorize individuals, but separating groups by gender is one way to ensure all participants have the most in common. A group mixing single, childless men with married mothers will not provide the most engagement for all parties. While it’s essential to think from the perspective of others, this grouping will result in both the men and the women spending too much time listening to situations that don’t apply to them.

A young, single man can’t apply what he learns about addiction affecting childcare, and a married woman with kids won’t benefit from hearing about how substance abuse has impacted a single man’s search for romantic partners. Separating therapy groups by gender makes it more likely that the majority of experiences shared will apply to most members of the group. This approach maximizes each participant’s benefit from therapy, and their ability to contribute meaningfully in sessions.

Gender-Specific Therapy at Tranquil Shores

Seeking treatment for addiction to drugs or alcohol holds challenges unique to each individual. Gender-specific therapy is one way to reduce the differences between men and women that may present an obstacle in effective treatment. Tranquil Shores provides gender-specific treatment in Tampa Bay, Florida, fostering safe and supportive environments for both men and women to recover from addiction.

We welcome people of all backgrounds with a commitment to evidence-based treatment that addresses the whole individual. Our alternative healing methods complement our multiple modes of therapy to provide customized plans tailored to the needs of each patient. To learn more about addiction treatment at Tranquil Shores in Florida, call us at (727) 591-4119 or contact us online. We are more than happy to answer your questions and provide more information about the next steps in recovering from substance abuse and addiction.

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