Cocaine Addiction’s Effects in Women

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Cocaine Addiction’s Effects in Women

Cocaine Addiction’s Effects in WomenCocaine addiction is the term used to describe the combined effects of a physical dependence on the illegal drug cocaine and ongoing involvement in behaviors designed to support that dependence. Current evidence indicates that female cocaine addicts commonly begin their involvement with the drug for different reasons than male cocaine addicts. Once addicted to the drug, women also typically experience escalations of their cocaine cravings under different circumstances than the circumstances that increase cravings in men. As a result of these gender-based distinctions, female cocaine addicts may respond better to different treatments than those commonly used to treat male cocaine addicts.

The Basics

Generally speaking, addiction to cocaine (and most other drugs of abuse) develops gradually in a series of incremental steps. First, a new cocaine user tries the drug and enjoys it for its ability to produce an intensely pleasurable state called euphoria. With or without the user’s conscious understanding, this euphoric state stems from cocaine’s ability to significantly increase brain levels of a chemical called dopamine, which plays a crucial role in activating the brain’s reward or pleasure centers. In the second step of addiction development, repeated use of cocaine leads to increasing alterations in normal brain function (particularly in an emotion-processing structure called the amygdala) that eventually start to make the user feel out of sorts when there is no cocaine in his or her system. In the third step of addiction, conscious priorities within the brain change, and the user starts to orient his or her life around cocaine acquisition and use.

Reasons for Initial Drug Use

People start using drugs for a variety of reasons. For instance, some people use drugs in order to fit in with their peer group or social scene, while others want to experience a particular drug’s intoxicating effects or have a more general desire to “feel good.” In many cases, males and females have similar reasons for using a particular drug. However, according to researchers at Oxford University, initial motivations for cocaine use in men and women differ to an unusually high degree. For men, a prominent reason for their interest is the desire to combine cocaine with another substance and intensify their overall drug experience. On the other hand, women commonly start using cocaine in order to reduce their stress levels, decrease their personal or social inhibitions, or stay awake for longer periods of time. A 2004 study at Yale University also identifies stress reduction as a main motivation for initial cocaine use in women.

Triggering Events

As stated previously, cocaine-addicted women typically feel increased cravings for the drug in different circumstances than cocaine-addicted men. In cocaine-addicted men, triggering events for increased cravings usually involve exposure to specific circumstances already associated in their minds with cocaine use. Potential examples of such circumstances include being in the presence of others using the drug, watching movies or TV shows that contain images of cocaine use, and exposure to general environments or particular locations in which they used cocaine at some point in the past. On the other hand, in cocaine-addicted women, triggering events for increased cravings typically involve exposure to some form of significant mental stress. Depending on the individual, this stress may come from sources such as exposure to certain situations, interactions with certain people, or internal states of mind that arise without any particular connection to a specific external environment.

According to a Yale University study published in 2012 in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the differences in craving patterns between male and female cocaine addicts are quite stark. In fact, addicted women exposed to cocaine-related imagery experience virtually no increase in their craving levels. Conversely, addicted men under mental stress experience only minor increases in their craving levels.

Implications for Treatment

Motivations for continued cocaine use differ so much between male and female addicts, the authors of the study in the American Journal of Psychiatry explain, that men and women may require fundamentally different types of treatment in order to overcome their active reliance on the drug. Men may be better suited for established cocaine treatment techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or similar psychotherapeutic approaches, as well as involvement in 12-step support groups. On the other hand, women may obtain better results from participation in treatments based on the principles of stress relief or stress reduction.

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