latisha bader

Article Reviewed by LaTisha L. Bader, Ph.D., LP, LAC, CC-AASP

This article has been reviewed for accuracy by our Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. LaTisha Bader, Ph.D, LP, LAC, CC-AASP.

There are many gender differences in addiction, something that is being studied at greater length now. One of the clearest examples of the gender gap in addiction can be found in what is known as telescoping. It has been found to be more prevalent in women, putting them at high risk for developing addiction quickly. 

What is the Telescoping Effect?

Telescoping is a term that describes how quickly someone will go from initiating use of a substance to dependence upon that substance and the impact it has on your body. There have been many studies that have found the same thing, women fall into addiction more quickly than men. The substances that have been most prevalent when studying telescoping gender differences in addiction include opioids, cannabis, and alcohol. While women will start with lower levels of substance abuse, it can more quickly lead to extreme use that can hit a dangerous level.

LaTisha Bader

At Women’s Recovery our clients enter into treatment with an average of 3 diagnoses, and they are taking approximately 4-5 medications. These medications are used for medication assisted therapy, mental health concerns and medical problems. In essence, women are “sicker” when they admit for treatment because they can often “function” for longer periods of while using. This doesn’t mean that our bodies and minds are not being severely affected by the disease, but we continue to push on.

~ LaTisha Bader, Ph.D., LP, LAC, CC-AASP, Chief Clinical Officer at Women’s Recovery

Substance Addiction Treatment Admission

Part of the gauge for telescoping effects between men and women is the state they’re in when they enter into addiction rehab. When a woman goes into substance addiction treatment, she will often have a more severe clinical profile than men. This includes the following:

  • Medical Issues
  • Behavioral Problems
  • Psychological Disorders
  • Social Challenges

Rapid Pace of Abuse to Substances in Women

The telescope effect that occurs in women was identified decades ago when it came to alcohol abuse. Recent research has found women also telescope with other substances. One of the main gender differences in addiction is the rapidness of women’s abuse of substances. Women will increase their consumption rates much faster than men. Evidence has found that women will more quickly become addicted to heroin and use it at a more rapid pace.

According to researcher Lauren C. Balmert, lead author of a University of Pittsburgh study that traced an alarming climb in overdose rates among females in Pennsylvania, “women are more prone to having accelerated progression from first drug use to substance abuse and often enter into treatment programs with more severe dependence than men.”

Telescoping of Alcoholism in Women Alcoholics 

The study that examined telescoping with women and alcohol took place in 1989. When referring to landmark symptoms, they include:

  • First drink.
  • First time being drunk.
  • First problems that relate to alcohol.
  • First treatment admission.

There were three different aspects of telescoping in alcoholic women that were looked at.

  • Age of onset of four landmark symptoms. 
  • Years between these landmark symptoms
  • The number of symptoms that occurred in each individual between landmarks.

By conducting the study this way, they found women alcoholics had a much shorter interval between the age they started having a problem with alcohol and the time they looked for recovery treatment. 

The Reason Behind Telescoping in Women

The challenges women face in addiction are many. Not only are there hormones to contend with but the way a woman’s brain chemistry works can have an effect on coping through substances. Women are generally hit harder when they abuse substances. Their health will deplete more quickly and the consequences of addiction will often affect women more harshly. This makes it more challenging for women to recover from addiction.

So why do women experience the telescoping effect more intensely than men? It is not easy to pinpoint the exact reasons even through exploration of both the male and female mind. However, research has found proof of women being more vulnerable to full-blow addiction and getting there faster. 

Higher Rates of Mental Disorders for Women

It’s been found that women suffer from mood disorders such as depression and anxiety at a higher rate than men. Oxford University researched depression and anxiety between men and women. They found that women are about 75% more likely to report episodes of depression than men. The study also found that 60% of women were more likely to report anxiety disorder. Mood disorders like anxiety and depression have a strong connection with addiction (known as co-occuring disorder). The theory then is that women are more vulnerable to addiction because of the higher risk of mental illness.

Women’s Recovery understands the importance of treating mental health, trauma and addiction all at once. Learn more about our Women’s Outpatient Program

Greater Incidence of Trauma

Generally, women have been found to experience more trauma and life stresses. These are key factors in drug abuse, which can quickly lead to dependence and addiction. Roughly 50% of women have reported some type of trauma that happened in their life. This can range from sexual trauma, violence, or a myriad of negative childhood experiences.These types of occurrences have been found to often cause abuse of substances. In a woman’s lifetime, she is more likely to deal with gender discrimination, which has been scientifically linked to cause higher levels of stress.

With all of this said, there is a lot of debate over the male and female reasons for addictions and there hasn’t been enough research put together to state these claims as absolute fact. There are gender differences for why and how addiction occurs. Still, there are missing pieces.

However, with the knowledge that there are gender differences in addiction, it’s important to seek out treatment that will target your direct needs. Treatment outcomes can be more effective if you go through a program that is designed just for women. At Women’s Recovery, we offer outpatient addiction treatment programs. You can still maintain your lifestyle while getting high quality addiction treatment. If you have questions about addiction or our program, please contact us today.


1 Addiction in Women

Harvard Mental Health Letter

Published: January, 2010

2 Telescoping of alcoholism in women alcoholics

Int J Addict. 1989 Jan;24(1):19-28.