Women, Addiction and the Telescope Effect

Women are typically “harder hit” by drug addiction. Women tend to “telescope” more than men with drugs – meaning they start with lower levels of alcohol and drug use but end up binging to an even more deadly degree.

There are several fundamental differences between the sexes, including the way men and women are affected by substance abuse. Although more men have substance abuse problems, women tend to be harder hit by abuse. Substance abuse experts describe this difference as “telescoping” – women begin using alcohol and drugs at lower levels than men do, but their use escalates to addiction more quickly.

According to Dr. Marc Potenza, an addiction researcher at Yale, the telescope effect in women was first identified several decades ago in relation to alcohol abuse. More recent research has linked telescoping to women’s drug abuse and gambling.

A report by University of Michigan researchers published on the National Institutes of Health website examines the sex differences in drug abuse. Adult men are 2 to 3 times more likely to have a drug dependency or addiction disorder, but women have a tendency to increase their rate of consumption of alcohol, opioids, marijuana and cocaine more rapidly. There is also some evidence that women escalate their use of heroin more rapidly and become addicted more quickly.

In general, women become addicted to drugs less often than men, but when they do become addicted the disease tends to run its course much more quickly. The reason for this difference may be rooted in psychological differences between the sexes. Women often use drugs for mood regulation and stress reduction, while men are more attracted to the risk-taking aspect of drug abuse.

A comprehensive study of women and substance abuse treatment, also published by the National Institutes of Health, found that women are less inclined to seek treatment for addiction. This is often due to practical concerns about child care and taking care of their homes. Women also report that they feel there is more stigma attached to a women who abuses drugs or alcohol. Another reason many women avoid treatment is that they are too depressed to seek help. When women do seek treatment, they often have a harder time quitting and have a greater rate of relapse following treatment.

There is some evidence that the sex differences in addiction may have a biological component. Women appear to be more sensitive to stimulants like amphetamine and cocaine and to become addicted to them more quickly. Female hormones levels have been found to influence a woman’s response to drugs; studies have found that women experience a heightened effect from stimulants during certain phases of their menstrual cycle.

Women’s abuse of stimulants may also be tied to a desire to lose weight. The majority of people with eating disorders are women. According to the International Journal of Eating Disorders, about 4 out of every 10 women with an eating disorder is also suffering from a substance abuse disorder.

The family and friends of women who abuse drugs or alcohol should be aware that women become addicted more quickly and may have a harder time quitting. As seen in the recent tragic deaths of Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, women can die from their addiction before they bottom out and succeed in getting help for their drug addiction.

Recovering from substance use disorders is a challenging journey that feels more doable in an environment that tends to each individual’s complex needs and strengths. Our goal is to foster a treatment experience that is built on compassion, hope, and caring, and fueled by excellence in the provision of evidence-based and trauma-informed care.

– - Anonymous