Affecting more than 19 million Americans in 2017, addiction is a universal problem in the U.S. And it is known to impact people from all genders, ethnicities, and ages. But despite this lack of prejudice, new research shows that addiction may affect men and women differently.
A psychological phenomenon known as telescoping, which refers to the amount of time between the initial use of a drug and onset of dependence, is more prominent in women than in men. And since most research on addiction focused on men until the early 1990s, we are just now learning how this trend is shaping drug and alcohol treatment for women.
In this article, we’ll discuss the meaning of telescoping, the factors that may underlie it, and how it can affect not just women, but also men.
What is Telescoping?
Telescoping occurs when certain individuals accelerate more rapidly from the point of substance use to chronic abuse and dependence. Yet, despite its newfound usage in addiction vernacular, the term has been around for quite some time. It’s most notably used in describing behavioral disorders, such as excessive gambling and anxiety, or in how people recall childhood memories.
Regardless, it is becoming commonplace in women’s rehab centers across the country due to its bias in molding how quickly women become addicted.
For instance, after their first drink, women are seen to enter rehab for alcoholism sooner than men. One study performed by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina suggests that women start getting drunk around 26.6 years old and experience their first drinking problems about a year later, at 27.5 years old.
It takes men nearly double the amount of time to go through similar life events. In other words, a woman’s course of progression from “having a drink with the girls” to a full-blown addiction is compressed, or telescoped, when compared to a man’s.
In more clinical terms, telescoping is marked by an accelerated movement through the 5 Stages of Addiction as depicted in a 2017 study by researchers from the University of Michigan. Individuals will usually start from Acquisition or initial exposure to a drug, food or activity. Then, they will progress through the subsequent stages of Escalation, Maintenance, Withdrawal and Relapse.
When telescoping occurs, affected individuals move rapidly from Acquisition to Escalation and then Maintenance. The point of Maintenance is where the individual stabilizes, but when telescoping is involved, the individual may stabilize at higher doses.
What Are The Factors That Affect Telescoping?
There are several factors that may explain why certain individuals progress more rapidly from first exposure to dependence. They include the following:
- Co-occurring Disorders: According to this study, substance abuse rates are higher amongst women with eating disorders. It was found that lifetime eating disorder behaviors co-occurred with substance abuse disorder in up to 40% of women. Other disorders such as PTSD and mood/anxiety disorders are also thought to make individuals, especially women, more vulnerable to addiction and more likely to telescope.
- Biological Differences: Hormones are thought to influence the behavioral effects of drugs. For instance, the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle is associated with the greatest responsivity to stimulants. This means a person newly exposed to at or around this stage may progress more rapidly than at other stages.
- Sociological Differences: For gambling disorders, societal norms may contribute to telescoping. In societies where women experience more socio-cultural pressures that oppose gambling, for instance, gambling disorders may move more rapidly.
- Gambling Type: It is thought that telescoping may occur more in non-strategic v strategic forms. According to this study, the non-strategic forms, often preferred by women, may be more addictive due to the shorter period between bet and outcome. The faster display of results may explain why some individuals continue playing since they feel winning may be a short while away.
Is Telescoping Restricted to either Gender?
Although the research on telescoping is relatively limited, there is a consensus that women are more at risk for telescoping than men. Several studies have drawn this connection especially in relation to alcohol dependence and drug abuse.
However, there are yet other studies that found no evidence that women exhibit a shorter period of time from first use to dependence.
One 2017 study argued that the conclusions on telescoping being a phenomenon mostly associated with women may be wrong. The study analyzed the origins of the framework of telescoping research from as far back as 1952 up to contemporary times.
It found that early conventions in telescoping research was “gender-biased” and included a “masculine” framework in the methodology guiding research. The researchers concluded that utilizing this “masculine” framework may have perpetuated gender bias and limited novel research that could arise from women-focused research and practice.
Essentially, most of the early research utilized a masculine framework that could have hurt women related findings. In addition, contemporary research also founded on the methodology in those early studies may be equally tainted.
How then do we tell if telescoping is limited to either gender? The effects of specific addictive behaviors and substances may tell a better tale.
How Does Telescoping Affect Women Compared to Men?
Rather than being a blanket phenomenon that affects women in relation to addiction generally, telescoping may have a more varied effect per substance or behavioral disorder. Here’s how it may affect each of the genders relative to the following disorders:
- Gambling: One Australian study researched into the telescoping effect in gambling disorders on a sample size of 4,764 participants. It found that men initiated gambling at an earlier age than women. It also found that men progressed more rapidly to weekly gambling, symptoms of disordered gambling and diagnosis. Despite this, many other studies, referenced here, report that gambling disorders in women, compared to men, is telescoped.
- Alcohol Dependence: Another study conducted by a team from Columbia University failed to find significant evidence for a telescoping effect in women for alcohol use and dependence. The conclusion was reached after analyzing data from two national surveys conducted 10 years apart. Again, other evidence exists to the contrary, although in a much earlier study.
- Opioids: Research indicates that women use smaller amounts of heroin, for shorter periods and are less likely to inject them. For prescription opioids however, there is much less clarity. Data from the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that women aged 12-17 had higher rates than men. However, men aged 18-25 had higher rates of use than women.
- Stimulants: Rates of stimulant use are generally similar among men and women. Certain studies however suggest that women may be more vulnerable to the reinforcing effects of stimulant drugs such as cocaine.
- Cannabis: Cannabis, also called marijuana, is the most commonly used illicit drug in the US. Studies suggest that men are more likely to use marijuana daily and initiate at a younger age than women.
All of the above simply goes to show that the phenomenon of telescoping is extremely complicated. The varied nature of research on the subject means that no one can really say with much confidence who it affects more amongst the genders and why.
Regardless, it is imperative that treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction are cognizant of this psychological phenomenon. For treatment programs to have the best results, clinicians would need to balance the needs of each patient and the issues that underlie their struggles.
At the Stonegate Center Hilltop for Women, our focus is on helping our patients achieve the best outcome possible. That is why we hire masters-level clinicians with vast experience in dealing with female-related issues and substance abuse trends. And through our gender-separate and faith-based approach, we are confident we have one of the best programs in Texas.
For more information on rehab for women in the Dallas / Fort Worth area, give us a call at (817) 993-9733 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our Admissions Specialists are in recovery themselves and are happy to answer any rehab or addiction-related question you may have! So, give us a ring and get started on the road to sobriety today.
John Eckelbarger is a Business Development Representative for Stonegate Center. With a BSA in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, he has an interest in the neurobiology of addiction as well as the pharmacology of drugs. He hopes to bolster Stonegate Center’s status at the forefront of addiction medicine through bold, innovative content creation. He is currently pursuing his MBA in Finance from Texas Christian University.