Identifying PTSD Symptoms In Women

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that occurs in people who have witnessed or experienced trauma or life-threatening event. 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, the effects can feel debilitating.

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What Causes PTSD?

Exposure to any trauma is a risk factor that could lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. Experiencing trauma does not mean that one is sure 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. Examples of events that could lead to PTSD include:

  • Childhood abuse and neglect
  • Being the victim of 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

Understanding The Risk Factors For PTSD

Some researchers believe that genetics play a part in an individual’s ability to withstand trauma or in their reactive, defensive mechanisms. Some people seem to be able 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.

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.

Symptoms Of PTSD

Symptoms of PTSD may start as early as one 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. Typically, PTSD symptoms are grouped into four main categories: avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, intrusive memories, and changes in emotional and physical reactions.

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.

Negative Changes In Thinking And Mood include having a negative self-perception, feeling hopeless about the future, feeling detached from friends and family, 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. Nightmares about the event, severe emotional distress, and physical reactions when something triggers a memory of the event is also classified as intrusive memories.

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Changes In Physical And Emotional Reactions are also called 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, being easily startled or frightened, and altered sleep patterns.

Is There A Relationship Between PTSD And Eating Disorders?

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

It is believed that many people who experienced a traumatic event in their lives may defer to eating disorder behavior to self-manage the feelings they have that lead to the development of PTSD. In fact, one of the reasons that eating disorder symptoms occur in people with PTSD is the person’s effort to avoid coping with the painful feelings caused by the traumatic event.

Women And PTSD

While women and men report similar symptoms of PTSD, some symptoms are more common among women 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 anger, women with PTSD will most likely feel anxious and depressed.

Women are believed to be more likely to experience flashbacks of traumatic events, especially if the event involved any type of personal abuse. She may have a constant fear of the trauma happening again, and her 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 primary symptom that women with PTSD report. Feelings of anxiety, fear, and isolation can lead to feelings of helplessness and depression. Severe depression may lead to drug or alcohol abuse. In extreme cases of PTSD, some women experience suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

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
  • Experienced additional stressful events after the trauma
  • Lacks a good social support system
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Treatment Options For PTSD

There are several treatment options for women with PTSD. Unfortunately, not everyone who has experienced trauma will seek treatment. Women who do seek help after a traumatic event often respond well.

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

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 because of the 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 have symptoms related to PTSD, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent symptoms of PTSD from getting worse.

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There are many options for mental health assistance. Whether you choose to talk to a local mental health practitioner, a counselor or therapist, or join a support group, the important thing is to know that you are not alone.

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 is affordable and convenient. Most online services, like that offered by BetterHelp, 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.


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