PTSD In Women: Identifying The Signs And Symptoms

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

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, which may cause other mental health problems.

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. These traumas can lead to various issues, such as substance use, alcohol abuse, or family members being affected.

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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 depression and 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.

In addition, women tend to cope with emotions and seek comfort, while men usually focus on solving problems. Women often rely on social support, and its absence can lead to negative outcomes after trauma. For example, women may find talking with friends or joining support groups helpful.

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.

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. According to studies, there are fewer women with war-related trauma than women with other types of trauma. 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 soldier. Veterans can contact the Veterans Crisis Line for 24/7 help at 1-800-273-8255.

Some of the most common events that may lead to PTSD include the following:

  • Childhood abuse and neglect 
  • Domestic violence 
  • Witnessing or experiencing natural disasters (e.g., tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes) 
  • Combat exposure 
  • Sexual assault, harassment, or coercion 
  • Physical attacks or threats with weapons 
  • Death-related trauma (e.g., sudden or violent death, severe injury of a loved one) 
  • Loss of significant relationships (e.g., family member's death, traumatic breakup) 
  • Car accidents and other civilian incidents 
  • Repeated traumatic events

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

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. People with PTSD and eating disorders may use unhealthy eating habits as a way to cope with distressing symptoms and emotions linked to their traumatic experiences. It is important for individuals facing these challenges to seek professional help, as addressing both PTSD and the eating disorder simultaneously can lead to more effective recovery and improved well-being.

Risk factors for PTSD in women

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 develop 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 anxiety and depression
  • 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

Signs and 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.

Avoidance symptoms

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

In individuals with PTSD, common aspects of their experience may include mood symptoms and negative changes in thinking. These symptoms 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”

Intrusive memories

Unwanted, recurrent, or distressing memories of a traumatic event may be referred to as intrusive memories. Common symptoms of intrusive memories can include:

  • Nightmares
  • Severe emotional distress
  • Negative thoughts
  • Flashbacks
  • Distressing physical symptoms and reactions to trauma triggers (things that remind you of the traumatic event/s)
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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

PTSD diagnosis in women

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

PTSD is treatable. Short-term and long-term therapy or medications may help alleviate the symptoms while you learn to apply effective coping mechanisms.

Several treatment options exist for those experiencing PTSD or distressing symptoms after a traumatic event. Studies show that PTSD treatment methods, such as EMDR, are effective when implemented correctly. An effective treatment plan for PTSD can help individuals regain interest in everyday activities and manage their mental health condition.

Exposure therapy

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.

EMDR therapy

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.

Medication

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.

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Alcohol and drug abuse in PTSD 

People with PTSD often experience intense feelings related to their past traumas. Sometimes, they may turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with these difficult emotions. However, using substances to numb their pain usually makes things worse and can make recovery more challenging. Women with a history of PTSD are 2.5 times more likely to experience alcohol abuse or dependency compared to those who have never had PTSD.

Spotting the signs early can help a person get the right help and treatment more quickly. Talking to a doctor, therapist, or other trained mental healthcare professional may be the right step in getting the proper diagnosis and setting up a plan for recovery, which might include therapy or medication. 

Managing alcohol and drug abuse is sometimes a key part of treating PTSD. By including substance use treatment in the overall recovery plan, people with PTSD have a better chance of overcoming their struggles and getting back on track. Seeking professional help can teach them how to manage their symptoms and take control of their lives again.

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.

Counselor reviews

“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.”

Takeaway

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.

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