In general, women struggle with alcohol abuse and addiction at lower rates than men. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) publishes that nearly 10 million men in the US battled alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2015 while just over 5 million women did.
Women who suffer from intimate partner violence are more likely to abuse substances than those who don’t. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reports on a study that showed 33 percent of women who experienced physical violence also reported drug or alcohol problems as opposed to 16 percent of women who didn’t experience physical violence. Alcohol played a role in 55 percent of domestic violence cases among these victims. Another study published by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) showed that victims of domestic abuse were twice as likely to consume alcohol than their partner who perpetuated the abuse.
Domestic abuse can be either physical or emotional in nature or both, coming in the form of physical aggression and violence, social isolation, intimidation, threats, coercion, financial withholdings, and/or verbal abuse. Domestic abuse is an assertion of control of one partner over the other and often perpetuated habitually in a pattern.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that 9-44 percent of women in the United States have suffered from domestic abuse. Being the victim of trauma, such as domestic abuse, can make a person more apt to then experience mental health conditions and substance use disorders, and engage in other risky behaviors. Alcohol is often involved in instances of domestic abuse, both by the perpetrator and the victim, which can result in a more significant and negative outcomes.
Stress, Trauma, Substance Abuse, and Addiction
Alcohol may be used as a coping mechanism to numb the physical and/or emotional pain and trauma caused by domestic abuse. Intimate partner violence can be a major contributor to stress and anxiety, and stress is often a factor in drug and alcohol abuse and addiction.
The journal the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences reports on the well-known link between stress and the onset of addiction. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that dampens anxiety and the body’s natural reaction to stress by inducing relaxation, slowing heart rate and blood pressure, and lowering body temperature. Alcohol can therefore temporarily relieve feelings of stress and become a form of self-medication for stressful events or emotions. Chronic stress can impact the brain’s chemistry and circuitry, possibly making a person more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, as it also interferes with brain chemicals related to emotional regulation. Drinking to excess on a regular basis can cause the brain to become chemically imbalanced, leading to alcohol dependence, which may then lead to compulsive alcohol consumption, or addiction.
When someone suffers from addiction, they may struggle with difficult withdrawal symptoms and cravings when alcohol wears off, and they may then be unable to stop drinking on their own. Withdrawal symptoms often include stress and anxiety, both of which are elevated by episodes of domestic abuse. An abusive relationship can lead to a stressful and chaotic home environment as well, which is another potential risk factor for addiction.
Stress can also contribute to relapse, Psych Central warns, which is a return to drinking after stopping for any length of time. Domestic abuse may contribute to the development of an anxiety or mood disorder as well, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), both of which are also exacerbated by alcohol abuse and addiction.
Domestic Abuse and Alcohol Hazards
Alcohol can impair cognitive functions, impede coordination, lower inhibitions, and interfere with functional decision-making abilities, which can then increase the odds that a person will engage in risky or hazardous behaviors, get into an accident, become injured, or be the victim of a crime or sexual assault. Therefore, it may also play a role in worsening situations of domestic abuse.
The World Health Organization (WHO) publishes that alcohol can make a person less likely to try to navigate a potentially volatile situation and therefore can inhibit a person’s abilities to negotiate a nonviolent solution due to a lack of self-control brought about by alcohol. Abuse of alcohol can make it more likely for a person to be victimized and can also increase suicidal ideations and inclinations. While alcohol may seem to numb the pain and make it more palatable in the short-term, drinking to reduce emotional and/or physical distress can have lasting and far-reaching consequences.
Problem drinking can cause a person to become socially isolated and lose interest in things that were important to them before. Individuals suffering from domestic abuse and problematic alcohol use may turn inward, and become secretive and reclusive. Mood swings, personality shifts, and uncharacteristic behaviors are typical. Sleeping and eating patterns may change.
A person battling alcohol addiction may continue to drink in potentially risky situations and do so despite knowing that drinking will cause them more personal harm. They may also need to drink more and more each time (increasing tolerance) in order to keep feeling the effects of alcohol. Cravings and withdrawal symptoms may crop up when alcohol wears off. Work production and/or grades at school may slip, and frequent absences may become commonplace. Obligations are often overlooked.
Co-occurring depression and/or anxiety are common for those struggling with domestic abuse, and SAMHSA reports that close to 8 million adults suffer from both addiction and a mental health disorder simultaneously. Physical health conditions and injuries may be the result of domestic abuse, trauma, and addiction as well.
Getting Help for Alcohol Abuse and Domestic Violence
A woman who lives with domestic abuse may face many potential barriers to treatment. The abuser may use alcohol as a method of control, perpetuating and enabling the addiction. A person in an abusive relationship may be under the financial control of a partner and not able to seek help on their own. Intimidation and control are major components of domestic abuse that may prevent a woman from seeking treatment. A perpetuator of domestic abuse may fear being “found out” and encourage secrecy and isolation as well.
Crisis services and support services can help women find treatment programs and get professional help for both domestic abuse and alcohol addiction. The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides around-the-clock, confidential services for people seeking crisis services. Addiction treatment facilities often offer support and referral information for women seeking help as well.
Women who struggle with problematic drinking as a result of domestic abuse may benefit from specialized programming during addiction treatment. Therapy and counseling services may be provided on an outpatient or a residential basis, depending on a person’s needs; however, a residential treatment program can provide the stable, safe, and optimal environment for a woman to heal and move forward in recovery. Detox may be the first stage of a comprehensive treatment program for alcohol addiction.
Gender-specific treatment programs may be ideal. A woman who has experienced partner violence at the hands of the opposite sex may feel more comfortable in an all-women environment, for instance. Support groups made up of other women who have shared similar experiences can be beneficial as well. Group and individual counseling sessions work to rebuild self-esteem and self-confidence, and help women to learn healthy coping mechanisms and methods for managing stress that do not require the use of alcohol.
Specific therapies and treatment methods that may be helpful for women who struggle with drinking and previous instances of trauma include the following:
- Co-occurring disorders treatment: Integrated treatments for women suffering from a co-occurring mental health or medical disorder are important to manage both disorders simultaneously, as they are often overlapping and intertwined.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This is a research-based therapy technique that helps clients develop coping skills and positively adapt self-destructive thoughts in order to influence behaviors.
- Seeking Safety: This trauma-focused and research-based therapy is designed to help individuals develop a sense of safety in their thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and relationships by emphasizing coping skills and emotionally grounding techniques.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): This trauma therapy uses images and visual cues to help a person reform negative emotions and behaviors surrounding a past trauma.
Individuals who have experienced trauma and high levels of stress can benefit from specialized therapies that develop new strategies for coping with potential triggers and aid healing from past experiences. Women are taught methods for dealing with past events and given tools to move forward and minimize the potential for relapse. Holistic and alternative measures, such as yoga, art therapy, mindfulness meditation, equine-assisted therapy, fitness programs, chiropractic care, spa and massage therapy, and nutrition planning, can all complement traditional therapy techniques. Women who obtain the appropriate level of care can go forward to lead healthy and fulfilling lives in recovery.