Page title background

What Is Telescoping?

Addiction is a universal problem, impacting 19 million people in the United States alone. Yet, substance use disorders affect men and women differently, especially the progression from initial use to dependence and finally to treatment. This psychological phenomenon is known as the telescoping effect.

By better understanding telescoping and other gender-related differences influencing addiction, we may discover more effective prevention and treatment efforts for women and men.

What Is Telescoping?

Substance use disorder is a progressive disease. Most people go through a series of five stages when caught in the cycle of addiction:

  1. Initial exposure to a substance
  2. Escalation into drug dependence
  3. Maintenance when individuals attempt to recover
  4. Withdrawal
  5. Relapse or reinstatement of use

Telescoping is a term that describes an accelerated progression from that first initiation into substance misuse to chronic use and dependence. This phenomenon seems to have gender-related differences. Studies show that women who use opioids, alcohol or cannabis report a more accelerated progression than men.

Once women enter an addiction treatment program, they often have more severe physical, psychological and social difficulties than men — despite having used less of a substance and for a shorter time frame compared with men. For example, a study published by the Medical University of South Carolina showed it takes men nearly double the amount of time to progress from getting drunk to full-blown addiction — 2.3 years versus 0.9 years. A women’s path to addiction is compressed, or telescoped.

Factors That Affect Telescoping in Those With an Addiction

The telescoping effect has been observed and studied more in recent years, and several factors could explain why the progression of events occurs differently in men versus women:

  • Co-occurring disorders: Women have higher rates of co-occurring mood and anxiety disorders when compared to men. This could make vulnerable women more likely to telescope.
  • Biological differences: Hormones are believed to influence how certain drugs impact behavior. For example, women may be more responsive to stimulants during the follicular phase of menstruation, and those exposed to these substances during this stage may progress more rapidly.
  • Sociological differences: Women tend to use substances to self-medicate, while men tend to engage in these risky behaviors to be part of a group.
  • Addiction type: While men are more likely than women to use all types of illicit drugs, women seem to be more vulnerable to the reinforcing or reward effects of certain substances such as cocaine and meth. Women may also be more susceptible to cravings and relapse during recovery.

The Gender Differences and Avenues for Treatment

Telescoping is an extremely complicated phenomenon. While there are obvious gender differences that impact addiction, this does not mean vulnerable individuals are predestined to become addicted. Despite the bevy of research, no one can say with complete confidence who telescoping affects more between women and men and why.

Regardless of gender differences, those who find themselves caught in a cycle of addiction to drugs or alcohol must find help. Many addiction treatment programs are aware of this psychological phenomenon and balance each patient’s needs based on their gender, background, mental health needs and other underlying issues.

At Gateway Foundation, we offer gender-specific rehabilitation programs that focus on the unique needs of both women and men. While differences may exist, recovery is possible for all. To learn more, we invite you to contact us today.

Addiction Destroys Dreams, We Can Help