What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
According to the Office of Women’s Health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, describes a condition that occurs when people who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event continue to experience symptoms after the event that impair their daily functioning. These symptoms include feelings of distress and anxiety in remembering the event. It is common to feel fear, anxiety, and sadness, but it is not common to continue feeling that way for weeks and months after a significant event.
How Common is PTSD in Women?
Women are more likely than men to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to the data published by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Estimates have shown that 10% women will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime compared to 4% of men. Findings from a national mental health study found that one in three women will experience a sexual assault in their lifetime. Rates of sexual assaults, domestic violence, and childhood neglect and abuse are higher for women than men.
Types of Traumas
A traumatic event can be described as “any dangerous or life-threatening event, trauma, or intensely scary situation” (Office of Women’s Health). Traumatic events may include:
- Violent crimes
- Knowing your loved one is in danger
- Sudden death or illness
- War, combat, or terrorism
- Accidents (e.g., car)
- Natural disasters
- Physical or sexual assault or abuse, including rape
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), men are more likely to experience physical assault, accidents, disaster, combat, or witnessing death and injury, whereas women are at greater risk of sexual abuse or assault.
Signs and Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) lists the following signs and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:
- Intrusive thoughts or memories
- Continued anxiety
- Self-destructive behaviors such as drinking and substance use
- Emotional detachment
- Showing little interest in activities that used to bring you joy
- Feeling an array of negative emotions, like anger, guilt, shame, emptiness, or numbness
- Constantly feeling jittery, nervous, or tense
- Avoiding certain places, situations, or activities
These symptoms may result from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but may also occur for other reasons. However, symptoms may not appear for months or years after a traumatic event, leading to a later diagnosis. If you have experienced these symptoms for more than one month, it is recommended that you reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional for help.
How Are Symptoms Different for Women?
Hourani et al. (2015) have found that women experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) differently than men and often experience symptoms four times longer than men (four years vs. one year). Notable differences in symptoms include women being easily startled, feeling emotional numbness, avoiding emotional and physical closeness, and experiencing depression and anxiety. While men often resort to their “fight or flight” mechanism, women turn to “tend and befriend,” leading them to take care of others instead of themselves. In addition, women experience more distress than men across all symptoms on the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Checklist. However, women typically do not have alcohol or drug use issues following a traumatic event.
What Causes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Most people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have been in an accident or natural disaster, physically or sexually assaulted, or exposed to war or combat. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – it depends on the person’s resilience, coping and processing of that event.
Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
The Department of Veterans Affairs notes that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be treated by mental health and medical professionals using various techniques.
Treatment does not look the same for everyone, so professionals may need to use a combination of techniques. These can include:
- Trauma-focused therapies, like Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
- Exposure Therapy
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
- Medications such as antidepressants/anti-anxiety
Therapy is intended to help process the traumatic event and regulate your symptoms in the present. Many people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have other mental health conditions, so getting treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may also improve those conditions.
However, the American Psychological Association (APA) points out that many people do not seek treatment due to stigma. Women are likely to wait an average of four years after the onset of symptoms to receive treatment, while men wait a year and a half. Without treatment, symptoms can persist, leading to further physical or mental health concerns.
Frequently Ask Questions
Women are more prone to experience PTSD because:
- Women are more likely to experience sexual assault and childhood abuse
- Sexual assault is more likely to cause PTSD than other events
- Women may be more likely to blame themselves for traumatic experiences
DSM-5 diagnostic criteria are based on self-reported internalized symptomology, leading more women to experience PTSD differently from men. Men are more likely to experience externalizing disorders, such as substance use disorders, whereas women are more likely to have internalizing disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
Ways to help support someone with PTSD include:
- Pay attention to any triggers and stay calm when the person is triggered
- Learn ways to make them feel emotionally and physically safe
- Reassure that you are there for them and that you care for them
- Take note of behavioral changes and kindly point them out
- Do grounding or breathing exercises together
- Recognize their strengths while empathizing with their distress
PTSD is a serious mental health condition. If you experience some of these symptoms, contact us for help. We can connect you with a therapist who can is specialized in trauma-focused treatment for women.
The information on this page, or elsewhere on this site, is not intended to take the place of diagnosis, treatment or informed advice from a qualified mental health professional. You should not take or avoid any action without consultation with the latter.
If you would like to talk to a counselor, please click here.
American Psychological Association. (2017, August). Facts about women and trauma. https://www.apa.org/advocacy/interpersonal-violence/women-trauma
Cherry, K. (2021, September 12). What are the signs of PTSD in women? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/ptsd-in-women-signs-and-symptoms-5198684#toc-why-women-experience-ptsd-differently
Hourani, L., Williams, J., Bray, R., & Kandel, D. (2015). Gender differences in the expression of PTSD symptoms among active duty military personnel. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 29, 101-108.
How common is PTSD in women? U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved on 2022, April 2 from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_women.asp
Office on Women’s Health. (2018, August 28). Post-traumatic stress disorder. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/mental-health-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder
Ryder, G. (2021, November 29). 6 ways to help someone with PTSD. PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/ptsd/how-to-help-someone-with-ptsd