Women and men appear to benefit in different ways from AA participation

December 5, 2012, Massachusetts General Hospital

A new study finds differences in the ways that participation in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) helps men and women maintain sobriety. Two Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators found that, while many factors are helpful to all AA participants, some were stronger in men and some in women. For example, avoidance of companions who encourage drinking and social situations in which drinking is common had more powerful benefits for men, while increased confidence in the ability to avoid drinking while feeling sad, depressed or anxious appeared to be more important for women. Their report will appear in Drug and Alcohol Dependence and has been released online.

"Men and benefit equally from participation in AA, but some of the ways in which they benefit differ in nature and in magnitude," says John F. Kelly, PhD, associate director of the Center for Addiction Medicine. "These differences may reflect differing recovery challenges related to gender-based social roles and the contexts in which drinking is likely to occur."

Kelly and his co-author Bettina B. Hoeppner, PhD, note that, while AA was founded by men, one-third of its members today are women. Studies have found that women benefit at least as much as men from participation, and many women become deeply involved in the AA program. The researchers carried out some of the first studies identifying the behind the success of AA participation, and this report is the first to examine whether the benefits differ between men and women.

Kelly and Hoeppner analyzed data from more than 1,700 participants, 24 percent of whom were women, enrolled in a federally funded trial called Project MATCH that compared three approaches to . Participants in the trial were free to attend AA meetings along with the specific treatment program to which they were assigned. At several follow-up sessions, participants reported their success in maintaining sobriety, whether or not they were attending AA meetings, and completed specialized assessments of factors like their confidence in their ability to stay sober in particular situations and whether or not their social contacts supported or discouraged efforts to maintain abstinence.

In September 2011, Kelly, Hoeppner and colleagues reported in the journal Addiction that increased confidence in the ability to maintain abstinence in and spending more time with people who supported abstinence were the behavioral changes most strongly associated with successful recovery among overall Project MATCH participants attending AA meetings. The current study reanalyzed some of the data used in the Addiction study to see if there were differences between men and women in the impact of factors included in the assessments.

For both men and women, participation in AA increased confidence in the ability to cope with high-risk drinking situations and increased the number of social contacts who supported recovery efforts. But the effect of both of those changes on the ability to abstain from drinking was about twice as strong for men as for women. In contrast, women benefitted much more than men from improved confidence in their ability to abstain during times when they were sad or depressed. "It is striking that this effect was virtually absent in men while it was a major contributor to women's ability to remain abstinent and to limit the number of drinks they consumed when they did drink," says Hoeppner. Several factors that helped to reduce the intensity of drinking in men – such as less depression and fewer friends who encouraged drinking – did not appear to be as important for helping women.

Kelly says,"AA helps both men and women stay sober following treatment by enhancing sober social networks and boosting confidence in coping with high-risk social situations. In terms of alcoholism recovery more generally, we found the ability to handle negative moods and emotions was important for women but not for men. Conversely, coping with high-risk social situations – which could be attending sports or other events where people are likely to drink – was important for men but not women. These differences suggests that, for women, finding alternative ways to cope with negative emotions may yield recovery benefits, while among men, a greater focus on coping with social occasions that feature drinking may enhance recovery.

"In terms of intensity – the number of drinks consumed on days when someone does drink – because the variables we studied explained only about half of the effects of AA for women, there must be other factors involved that were not captured in our analysis," he adds. "More work is required to fully capture the biopsychosocial effects of AA participation for enhancing addiction recovery, particularly among women."

Explore further: Social contacts, self-confidence crucial to successful recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous

Related Stories

Social contacts, self-confidence crucial to successful recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous

September 12, 2011
Among the many ways that participation in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) helps its members stay sober, two appear to be most important – spending more time with individuals who support efforts towards sobriety and increased ...

Study shows young adults want to recover from addiction but need help to make it happen

September 30, 2011
Young adults undergoing addiction treatment arrive ready and willing to make the personal changes that bring about recovery, but it's the help and guidance received during treatment that build and sustain those changes, according ...

Study shows young adults with addiction benefit from active twelve step group participation

November 8, 2012
Young adults undergoing addiction treatment benefit from regular participation in Twelve Step-based self-help groups after discharge, according to a naturalistic study published electronically and in the journal Drug and ...

Recommended for you

Marijuana use may not aid patients in opioid addiction treatment

December 4, 2017
Many patients who are being treated for opioid addiction in a medication-assisted treatment clinic use marijuana to help manage their pain and mood symptoms.

For opiate addiction, study finds drug-assisted treatment is more effective than detox

November 23, 2017
Say you're a publicly insured Californian with an addiction to heroin, fentanyl or prescription narcotics, and you want to quit.

Study finds medical cannabis is effective at reducing opioid addiction

November 17, 2017
A new study conducted by researchers at The University of New Mexico, involving medical cannabis and prescription opioid use among chronic pain patients, found a distinct connection between having the legal ability to use ...

Insomnia linked to alcohol-use frequency among early adolescents, says new psychology study

November 8, 2017
Insomnia is linked to frequency of alcohol use among early adolescents, according to new Rutgers University–Camden research.

Large declines seen in teen substance abuse, delinquency

October 25, 2017
More than a decade of data indicates teens have become far less likely to abuse alcohol, nicotine and illicit drugs, and they also are less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors, such as fighting and stealing, according ...

Trying to get sober? NIH offers tool to help find good care

October 3, 2017
The phone calls come—from fellow scientists and desperate strangers—with a single question for the alcohol chief at the National Institutes of Health: Where can my loved one find good care to get sober?

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.