PTSD In Women: Identifying The Signs & Symptoms

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated August 3, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Laura Angers, NCC, LPC

Content Warning: This article mentions trauma-related topics which could potentially be triggering.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is a psychiatric disorder that 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 Anxiety and Depression Association of America, PTSD affects 7.7 million adults in the United States. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops post-traumatic stress disorder. However, for those who do develop PTSD and start to notice the signs of PTSD, the effects can feel debilitating and affect day to day life. In light of PTSD awareness month, we explore PTSD symptoms in women and treatment options in this article. 

Women Experience Unique PTSD Symptoms

What Causes PTSD?

Exposure to any trauma is a very high risk factor that could lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. Experiencing trauma does not mean that one is guaranteed to develop PTSD, though. In fact, it is quite possible for two people to experience the same trauma and for only one of them to develop PTSD afterward or experience PTSD symptoms. Alternatively, they could both have post traumatic stress, but experience ptsd differently.

We commonly hear from sources like the Veterans Affairs Department or National Center for PTSD that military female and male veterans in Afghanistan developed PTSD after coming home. However it’s important to keep in mind war is not PTSD’s only cause. In fact, how many women have developed PTSD outside of war, is greater than the number of women in who developed PTSD as military service members. For example, did you know PTSD can result from natural disasters? You can find statistics about PTSD on the Veterans Affairs website for military personnel and also on the Department of Health and Human Services website. Veterans can reach out to the Veterans Crisis Line for 24/7 help at 1-800-273-8255.

However, examples of traumatic experiences that could lead someone to develop PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) and other mental health problems include:

  • Childhood abuse and neglect
  • Experiencing domestic violence
  • Witnessing a natural disaster such as devastation from a tornado, earthquake, or hurricane
  • Combat exposure
  • Rape or other sexual assault
  • Being physically attacked
  • Being threatened with a weapon
  • Physical abuse
  • Natural disasters
  • Death related trauma: sudden death, accidental death, violent death, or serious injury of a loved one
  • Car accidents or other civilian accidents
  • Experiencing a traumatic event repeatedly

If you or someone you know is experiencing any abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for support and resources.

Understanding The Risk Factors

Some researchers believe that genetics play a part in an individual’s ability to withstand trauma or in their reactive, defensive mechanisms. For example, the American Psychiatric Association reports that women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD. Some people seem to withstand exposure to stressful and dangerous situations and remain unchanged by the event(s). For various reasons, others may not be able to deal with trauma effectively. This means the increased severity of PTSD, or having ptsd symptoms longer than average, does not necessarily indicate the more serious the trauma experienced.

Some personal characteristics increase the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Exposure to previous traumas (especially in the development stages of early childhood), family history of anxiety and depressive disorders, pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, and gender all contribute to the risk of developing PTSD afterward.

Core Symptoms Of PTSD

A core symptom of PTSD may start as early as a few weeks or more than a month after a traumatic event occurs. On the other hand, there are times when symptoms may not appear until several years after the event. Symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder can cause problems in both personal and professional relationships with mental and physical health problems alike. Typically, PTSD symptoms are grouped into four main categories: avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood symptoms, intrusive memories, and changes in emotional and physical reactions. All can be a key symptom in helping diagnose PTSD. And it's possible for an individual to develop physical effects or physical health problems when experiencing PTSD, too.

Avoidance symptoms involve trying to avoid talking or thinking about the traumatic event. Affected individuals will likely avoid people, places, and activities that remind them of the traumatic event or experience

Negative Changes In Thinking And Mood include key symptoms like having a negative self-perception, feeling hopeless about the future, lack of positive emotions, feeling detached from friends and family, emotional numbness, difficulty concentrating, and problems with memory, especially regarding important aspects of the traumatic event. If someone else mentions the event, the person with PTSD will often leave the room and avoid that individual.

Unwanted, recurrent, and distressing memories of the traumatic event are referred to as intrusive memories. Common symptoms related to intrusive memories include nightmares, severe emotional distress, negative thoughts and physical symptoms and reactions when something triggers a memory of the event.

Changes In Physical And Emotional Reactions are also referred to as arousal symptoms. These include always being “on guard” for danger, having outbursts of angry or aggressive behavior, feeling an overwhelming sense of shame or guilt related to the traumatic event, experiencing emotional numbing (trouble feeling emotions), being easily startled or frightened, and physical health problems, such as altered sleep patterns or sexual dysfunction.

Is There A Relationship Between PTSD And Eating Disorders?

The National Eating Disorders Association reports that PTSD is often a co-occurrence with eating disorder people. However, it is important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD; not all people with an eating disorder have some trauma history.

It is believed that many people who experienced a traumatic event in their lives may defer to disordered eating to self-manage the feelings they have that lead to the development of PTSD. One reason for eating disorder symptoms in people with PTSD is the person’s effort to avoid coping with the painful feelings caused by the traumatic event.

PTSD in Women

PTSD is as much of an issue for women’s health as it is for men’s health. While men and women tend to report similar symptoms of PTSD, some symptoms are more common among women than men and it is possible for women to experience ptsd differently than men. For example, women are more likely to have difficulty feeling and expressing emotions, are more easily startled, and avoid things that remind them of the trauma. While men are more likely to have difficulty controlling their anger, women with PTSD will most likely feel anxious and depressed.

Women are more likely to experience PTSD flashbacks, especially if the traumatic event involved any personal abuse. They may constantly fear the trauma happening again, and their social life may be impacted because of the fear that there is danger everywhere. Many women develop profound trust issues and display exaggerated responses to stimuli.

Difficulty sleeping is a common symptom of PTSD that affects women’s health. Feelings of anxiety, fear, and isolation can lead to feelings of helplessness and depression. Severe depression may lead to substance use and the risk of dependence. In extreme cases of PTSD, some women experience suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

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, confidential, and available 24/7.

Risk Factors

Women who are more likely to develop PTSD have at least one of the following risk factors:

  • Experienced severe or life-threatening trauma
  • History of sexual assault
  • Experienced an injury or severe reaction at the time of the traumatic event
  • Experience additional stressful events after they experienced trauma
  • Lacks a good social support system when dealing with a traumatic experience

PTSD Diagnosis

In order to diagnose PTSD, it’s necessary to speak to a mental health professional or trained counselor. A therapist can help someone determine if they have PTSD or other mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders. An earlier diagnosis leads to earlier PTSD treatment, which will in turn help a person overcome their mental health condition, or mental health conditions, quicker.

Treatment Options For PTSD

There are several treatment options for women with PTSD. Unfortunately, not everyone who has experienced trauma, or is currently experiencing trauma, will seek treatment for their mental health condition. Women who do seek help after a traumatic event often respond well to PTSD treatment.

If you have post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, you may feel overwhelmed and believe that getting a life “back to normal” isn’t possible, but things can get better with appropriate treatment. PTSD is treatable. Short-term and long-term therapy and medications can help alleviate the symptoms while you learn to apply effective coping mechanisms.

For example, a psychiatrist might recommend you start anti-anxiety medicine to treat PTSD symptoms along with attending talk therapy as part of your PTSD treatment. They may also recommend special types of therapy such as movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (also known as eye movement desensitization or EMDR), prolonged exposure therapy, or cognitive processing therapy.

Most forms of therapy used to treat PTSD fall under the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) umbrella. The goal of CBT is to learn how to change thought patterns as they relate to the traumatic event. Below are a few common types of CBT.

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 is another form of CBT that focuses on changing how you deal with the stress related to a traumatic event. It is one of the most common methods of CBT used to treat PTSD. It involves learning to relax and reduce stress by using muscle relaxation and deep breathing exercises. These sessions are aimed at helping clients learn the necessary skills to help defend themselves against troubling or negative thoughts and reactions related to the trauma that may occur.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is psychotherapy that does not rely on talk therapy or medications. EMDR uses a patient’s rapid eye movement to help soften the memories of past traumatic events. Although EMDR has no negative side effects, some mental health practitioners still debate its effectiveness.

People with PTSD often process things related to possible threats differently. Their “fight or flight” response is easily triggered by a past traumatic event(s). Being in a constant state of hyper-vigilance can lead to emotional shutdown and physical illnesses. For some, prescription medication may be necessary. Because people respond differently to medications, not everyone with PTSD will respond to the same medications. Some common types of medications used are antidepressants, antipsychotics, beta-blockers, and benzodiazepines.

Reaching Out For Help

If you have PTSD or think that you may be experiencing symptoms related to PTSD from a traumatic experience, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent symptoms of PTSD or other mental disorders from getting worse. When you experience trauma, help can be a lifeline to recovery.

Women Experience Unique PTSD Symptoms

Conclusion

There are many options for mental health assistance. Whether you choose to talk to a local mental health practitioner, your local health and human services department, a counselor or therapist, or join a support group, the important thing is to know that you are not alone when taking on a serious illness..

Local health units and mental health centers can provide access to mental health care providers. If you would like to talk to someone but are unsure of face-to-face encounters at this time, online counseling options are a great way to get professional help without the pressure of in-person appointments. Online counseling services focus on providing quality, professional mental health care that provides effective treatment — affordable and convenient. Like that offered by BetterHelp, most online services give users the option of connecting with licensed counselors from the comfort and privacy of their own homes. Whatever option you choose, remember you are not alone, and you are worth the time and effort it takes to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other Commonly Asked Questions:

What does PTSD do to a woman?

What are the 5 signs of PTSD?

What is the most common cause of PTSD in women?

What are the 7 symptoms of PTSD?

What happens if PTSD is left untreated?

What does untreated PTSD look like?

How does a person with PTSD Act?

What are the 17 symptoms of complex PTSD?

How do you check if you have PTSD?

How can you help a woman with PTSD?

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