One unfortunate reality of addiction recovery is that relapse is always a possibility. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 40 and 60 percent of people relapse within the first year after treatment. That’s a wide range it doesn’t account for all the factors that are relevant to relapse, such as length of addiction, intensity of substance use, manner of treatment, and others. One factor that may be relevant to relapse risk is whether the person in recovery is a man or a woman.
One study done by researchers from UCLA followed 182 women and 148 men from 26 different outpatient addiction treatment programs. The treatment programs lasted six months and the researchers interviewed participants during treatment and again six months later. They found that the men in the study were significantly more likely to relapse than the women. While 22 percent of the women had relapsed, 32 percent of the men had relapsed–almost 50 percent more.
Why are men at greater risk?
The researchers in the UCLA study considered several possibilities for the disparity in relapse rates. One idea was that men just use more drugs. However, the data didn’t bear this out. In the study, the same number of men and women had used powder cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs and more women had used crack cocaine. As far as frequency of use, all drugs were about the same except that women used crack and heroin more frequently than men.
Another idea was that the women received more social support than the men. The researchers did find that women were likely to maintain a social network but in general, the people in those networks did not support recovery, which, if anything, can make relapse more likely.
What did appear to separate the men and women in the study was engagement with group counselling. The women engaged in an average of 10.9 group counselling sessions per month compared to the men’s average of 7.9 sessions. Group counselling sessions are a central part of most addiction treatment programs and greater engagement correlates with a lower risk of relapse. The researchers speculated that the difference may be due to women’s greater willingness to seek help. Men, on the other hand, tend to feel like they can handle substance use issues on their own.
Another study may add something to that explanation. This study of patients who had been hospitalized for cocaine addiction found that 49 percent of women had relapsed compared to 75 percent of men. The authors of this study suggest a different explanation. Women typically face more barriers to getting treatment for addiction. These barriers include childcare, mostly male patients and staff, and a greater stigma. Women who are able to overcome these barriers to seek treatment may simply be more motivated to get sober and stay sober.
Men and women face different challenges
It appears that in general, men have a greater risk of relapse than women and the patterns of relapse are different as well. One significant difference is that men are more prone to relapse following positive emotions while women are more likely to relapse following negative emotions or depression. While most people are aware of the danger of relapse following negative emotions, fewer people think of the danger from positive emotions. In a positive frame of mind, perhaps at a celebration or on vacation, many people fall into the trap of feeling like they can control their substance use when they feel good and they think it’s only when they feel bad that they risk getting out of control. They may feel like being away from home or celebrating a special occasion makes it ok to use “just this once.” Others say that happy occasions make them think, “This would be even better if I could have a drink.” Whatever the reasoning, it’s just as important to be on guard during happy moments as sad ones.
Who you’re with appears to matter too. Men are more likely than women to relapse while alone. Both men and women frequently relapse with same-sex friends but women are more likely to relapse in the presence of a romantic partner. What’s more, women may relapse more impulsively while men are often more deliberate. One study from the University of Pennsylvania found that among participants who relapsed to cocaine use, 56 percent of women and only 17 percent of men reported relapsing immediately after the thought of using occurred to them.
What do these differences mean for recovery?
Being aware of potential hazards in addiction recovery can help you prevent relapse. Men need to be aware that positive moods and happy occasions are an especially high risk time for them. Men also need to be aware that their reluctance to engage in group counselling or the belief that they can or should be able to stay sober on their own can be a major liability. Men may also need encouragement to make a deliberate effort at building social support, since that is one of the most important components of a successful recovery and one that men often neglect.
Women, on the other hand, need to be aware of how the people they spend time with affect their relapse risk. Strategies for conflict resolution and tolerating negative emotions may also be helpful. However, ultimately, these are only broad trends. Plenty of men have relapsed impulsively and need to learn better emotional control strategies and plenty of women have relapsed while on vacation. The most important thing is to improve your own self-awareness and thinking about the different challenges men and women face may be one way to do that.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, Hired Power and our team of dynamic, experienced recovery professionals are here to guide you every step of the way. We offer many services, including helping you choose the best treatment program and transitional services, including interventions, sober monitoring, and personal recovery assistants. Call us today for information on our recovery services: 800.910.9299.