PTSD In Women: Identifying The Signs & Symptoms
Content Warning: This article mentions trauma-related topics which could potentially be triggering.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that often occurs in people who have witnessed or experienced trauma or a life-threatening event. This disorder appears in the DSM-5 (or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual).
According to the National Center for PTSD, 6% of US adults will have PTSD at some point in their lives. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops post-traumatic stress disorder. However, for those with symptoms, the effects may feel debilitating and affect daily life.
Anyone of any gender can have PTSD, and those assigned females at birth may find specific symptoms of PTSD to be heightened based on societal gender roles, a lack of support, or common types of traumas inflicted upon them.
What Causes PTSD?
Exposure to any trauma is a factor that could lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. Experiencing trauma does not mean one is guaranteed to develop PTSD, though. Two people can experience the same trauma, and only one of them may develop PTSD after. Researchers believe that genetics and other risk factors play a role in why this happens.
You may hear about PTSD in the media regarding war veterans. Although war can be a cause of PTSD, it isn’t the only cause. It is one of the lesser causes of PTSD in women. There are fewer women with war-related trauma than there are women with other types of trauma, according to studies. The leading cause of trauma in those assigned females at birth is sexual trauma, such as assault.
You can find statistics about PTSD on the Veterans Affairs website. It may be most helpful if you are a veteran or active military member. Veterans can contact the Veterans Crisis Line for 24/7 help at 1-800-273-8255.
Some causes of PTSD could include the following:
- Childhood abuse and neglect
- Domestic violence
- Witnessing a natural disaster such as devastation from a tornado, earthquake, or hurricane
- Combat exposure
- Sexual assault, harassment, or coercion
- Being physically attacked
- Being threatened with a weapon
- Physical abuse
- Natural disasters
- Death-related trauma such as sudden death, accidental death, violent death, or severe injury of a loved one
- Loss of someone important (death of a family member, a traumatic breakup, etc.)
- Car accidents or other civilian accidents
- Any repeated traumatic event
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for support and resources.
Risk Factors For PTSD
Some researchers believe genetics can play a part in an individual’s ability to overcome trauma. For example, the American Psychiatric Association reports that women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD.
For some, trauma may not have as deep of an impact. For others, it may be more challenging to recover after an event. For this reason, the severity of someone’s PTSD symptoms does not necessarily indicate the severity of the trauma. One person who experienced lifelong trauma and another who underwent a single traumatic event may share the same symptoms.
Other risk factors for PTSD may include:
- Exposure to previous traumas (especially in the first nine years of life)
- Family history of anxiety and depressive disorders
- Pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety
Core Symptoms Of PTSD
Symptoms of PTSD may start a few weeks or more than a month after a traumatic event occurs. Some symptoms may not appear until a few years after an event has passed.
PTSD symptoms are grouped into four main categories, including avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, intrusive memories, and changes in emotional and physical reactions.
Someone experiencing an avoidant symptom may try to avoid talking or thinking about the traumatic event they experienced. They may avoid people, places, and activities that remind them of the experience. This avoidance may look like avoiding social events, staying home as much as possible, or avoiding closed-off areas.
Negative Thoughts And Mood
Negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
- Developing a negative self-perception
- Feeling hopeless about the future
- A lack of positive emotions
- Feeling detached from your social circle
- Emotional numbness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Problems with memory (potentially regarding key aspects of the traumatic event)
- Feeling “out of your body” or “spacing out”
Unwanted, recurrent, or distressing memories of a traumatic event may be referred to as intrusive memories. Common symptoms of intrusive memories can include:
- Severe emotional distress
- Negative thoughts
- Distressing physical symptoms and reactions to trauma triggers (something that reminds you of the traumatic event/s)
Changes In Physical And Emotional Reactions
Changes in physical and emotional reactions may also be referred to as arousal symptoms. Arousal symptoms may include:
- Feeling “on guard” for danger
- Outbursts of anger or aggression
- Feeling an overwhelming sense of shame or guilt
- Experiencing emotional numbing (trouble feeling emotions)
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Physical health concerns, such as altered sleep patterns, weight loss/gain, or muscle and joint pain
- Difficulty with intimacy
Is There A Relationship Between PTSD And Eating Disorders?
The National Eating Disorders Association reports that PTSD can be a co-occurring condition with eating disorders. However, not everyone who experiences trauma will necessarily develop PTSD since not all people with an eating disorder have experienced trauma.
Studies suggest that those who experienced a traumatic event in their lives may develop disordered eating habits in some cases as a response to trauma or PTSD symptoms.
PTSD In Women
PTSD can impact anyone of any gender, as any human can experience trauma. While people of all genders may report similar symptoms of PTSD, some symptoms are more common among women than in other genders. Women are two to three times more likely to develop PTSD than men.
For example, women may be more likely to experience anxiety symptoms with PTSD. Studies show that women may be more likely to experience repeated traumas throughout life, increasing sensitivity to severe PTSD symptoms in future traumas.
Difficulty sleeping is a common symptom of PTSD that may affect women. Although sleep concerns are a general PTSD symptom, they may be heightened in women due to elevated levels of anxiety or repeated traumas.
Some women experience suicidal thoughts or behaviors related to PTSD. If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free and available 24/7.
PTSD Risk Factors In Women
Risk factors for PTSD in women may include:
- Repeated experiences of severe or life-threatening trauma
- A history of sexual assault
- An injury or severe reaction at the time of the traumatic event
- Additional stressful events after a traumatic event
- Lack of a social support system
A mental health professional such as a counselor or psychiatrist may be able to diagnose PTSD. Some symptoms of co-occurring disorders may mimic the symptoms, so a psychoanalysis test might help you understand your symptoms more clearly.
An earlier diagnosis may be beneficial. Studies indicate that early intervention for PTSD can aid in treatment.
Treatment Options For PTSD
Several treatment options exist for those experiencing PTSD or distressing symptoms after a traumatic event. Studies show that treatment methods designed for PTSD, such as EMDR, are effective when utilized.
PTSD is treatable. Short-term and long-term therapy or medications may help alleviate the symptoms while you learn to apply effective coping mechanisms.
Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive behavior therapy that focuses on reducing the emotional and physical distress one feels when confronted with a situation, distressing thought, or memory. There are several types of exposure therapy, and a psychologist can help determine which is best for you.
Stress Inoculation Training
Stress inoculation training is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that focuses on changing how you deal with the stress related to a traumatic event. It may involve learning to relax and reduce stress using muscle relaxation and deep breathing exercises.
These therapy sessions may be aimed at helping clients learn the necessary skills to help defend themselves against troubling or negative thoughts and reactions related to their trauma/s.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a type of therapy that targets the neurotransmitters in the brain. EMDR uses a patient’s rapid eye movement to aid in processing memories of past traumatic events with less distress or heavy impact.
Some people with PTSD process perceived threats differently than those without the condition. Their “fight or flight” response may be quickly triggered by stimuli that remind them of a traumatic moment or time in their life.
The “fight or flight” response can stay active for long periods, causing a constant state of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance may lead to emotional shutdown and physical illnesses. Some people prefer prescription medication as a treatment option in these cases.
Because everyone responds differently to medications, not everyone with PTSD will respond similarly to all medicines. Some common medications used for PTSD are antidepressants, antipsychotics, beta-blockers, and benzodiazepines.
Reaching Out For Help
If you have PTSD or experience distressing symptoms after a traumatic event, consider reaching out to your primary care physician or mental health care provider. When you experience trauma, professional support can be a valuable tool in recovery.
Local health units and mental health centers may be able to provide mental healthcare. If you want to talk to someone but feel uncomfortable with an in-person meeting, online counseling options are an effective and affordable way to get professional support. Studies indicate that online CBT is highly effective in treating prolonged exposure to stress.
Sites such as BetterHelp allow users to connect with various professionals in different areas of expertise. Whatever option you choose, you are not alone. You are worth the time and effort it takes to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.
Below are some counselor reviews from users who have recently reached out for help online.
“I have been speaking with Kevin for over a year and in that time I have recovered from my depression, CPTSD, BPD, alcoholism, anxiety, and many other mental health issues. I felt comfortable opening up to him and he was very positive and supportive through my journey. I highly recommend him as a quality therapist. Thank you Kevin.”
“Lori has changed my life for the better. She has given me the tools and confidence to properly cope with my anxiety, depression and past traumas. She is a GREAT listener and always empowers me to help myself. Lori has taught me to put myself first. I’m so thankful she is my therapist.”
PTSD may feel overwhelming and isolating. Whether you choose to talk to a local mental health practitioner or find support online, you are not alone. If you’re ready to take the first step, consider speaking with a licensed trauma counselor.