PTSD & Women

Guest Post by Pamela Zuber

A woman awakens with a start, her heart racing. She’s gasping for air and sweating, panicked and in an overall state of anxiety. This panic follows a nightmare that wakes her on a regular basis.

This woman could be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While many people associate PTSD with male military veterans, PTSD is also common in people who have never seen war.

Why? PTSD can occur after people experience any kind of traumatic event in their lives. Women who experience trauma might develop PTSD if they have:

  • Witnessed the sexual or physical assault of others
  • Experienced abuse or neglect
  • Struggled with prolonged exposure to harmful influences, such as growing up with parents who abused alcohol or drugs
  • Encountered a disturbing event in their lives, such as the sudden death of a loved one
  • Been raped or experienced other forms of sexual or physical violence
  • Suffered physical or psychological injuries in war as a member of the military or civilian

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Not all women who experience trauma will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. But, a fair number will. “Approximately 8 percent of survivors will develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” according to the American Psychological Association.

“Women have a two to three times higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to men,” reported Miranda Olff in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology. Olff, an expert on the psychological and biological responses to traumatic stress, said that these higher rates may occur because women tend to respond to traumatic stress with social responses. If these social responses aren’t acknowledged, it could lead to negative results. Furthermore, she added that women tend to experience trauma at younger ages and trauma at younger ages can create more impact.

Living with PTSD

If you think you are struggling with PTSD, you may have a hard time dealing with the symptoms. It is important to treat the issue to avoid further problems, such as substance abuse. Many women with the condition struggle with one or more of these symptoms:

  • Nervous, jittery behavior
  • Negative feelings that interfere with daily functioning
  • Avoidance of situations that might serve as reminders of traumatic events
  • Nightmares or flashbacks of the traumatic events

Dealing with such symptoms is bad enough. Unfortunately, other factors can prolong the trauma and make it worse.

For some, they are told their mental illness is not an illness but a defect. It’s ‘craziness’, not a disease. These labels can be worse for women who already battle stereotypes.

“Women with PTSD and complex needs are being failed by the current psychiatric system, which focuses on ascribing labels and prescribing medication rather than giving women therapy that would take their life experience and past trauma into account,” according to a focus group of the Women’s Mental Health Network.

Is it any wonder that some women search desperately for ways to avoid such pain and labels? They might use drugs or alcohol to alter their states of mind in order to cope with the symptoms of living with PTSD.

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Asking for Help

This is imperative. A woman who seeks help for both her mental health and substance abuse is taking brave steps to a healthier future. The stigma of substance abuse and PTSD along with other mental health problems can keep many people from asking for help.

Labels and stigmatization make things worse. While perspectives about mental illness are more positive than they were in the past, stigmas and labels still persist and keep some people asking for the help they need.

Treating Your PTSD

The causes and symptoms of PTSD and substance abuse vary. Thus, the treatments for both conditions also vary, but may include:

  • Individual or group therapy
  • Medication
  • Rehab
  • Physical fitness

How women receive treatment is sometimes as important as the treatment itself. Some women who are juggling different responsibilities might opt out of staying at rehab facilities. Instead, they might seek help from outpatient programs close to their homes that let them continue working at their jobs or taking care of their families.

Women who have experienced trauma from sexual assaults or domestic violence may find it more comfortable to seek treatment at a rehab for women that treats women exclusively or in a program that separates the sexes. They might find such issues difficult to discuss and find them even more difficult to address in a room with men.

Different PTSD Therapies

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Photo by mentatdgt on

EMDR therapy is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. This type of therapy requires clients to repeat a series of eye movements or taps, or it could expose them to repeated musical tones. During these repetitious movements or sounds, clients also recall trauma or other disturbing things in their lives. Working with psychotherapists, they seek to replace their negative emotions surrounding such trauma with more positive emotions.

Studies have shown that EMDR therapy can be effective in treating trauma. In a review of EMDR therapy studies, two randomized controlled trials “found that 84 percent to 90 percent of single-trauma victims no longer had PTSD after three 90-minute EMDR sessions.”

Another study compared the use of EMDR therapy to the use of fluoxetine, an antidepressant medication: “Upon termination of therapy, the EMDR group continued to improve, whereas the fluoxetine participants who had reported as asymptomatic at posttest again became symptomatic. At follow-up, 91 percent of the EMDR group no longer had PTSD, compared with 72 percent in the fluoxetine group.”

Psychotherapists play prominent roles in other types of PTSD treatment. They help clients during cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy requires clients to talk about their lives and emotions and helps them develop tools to improve their lives. For PTSD patients, this can involve discussing trauma and strategies for dealing with it. This can include creating action plans to deal with situations that remind them of their trauma.

CBT and EMDR are related to exposure therapy. As the name indicates, exposure therapy exposes people to things related to their trauma. It informs clients about PTSD, teaches them breathing exercises to relax them, introduces them to situations that may remind them of their trauma, and allows clients and psychotherapists to discuss their trauma and ways to handle it.

Trauma can cause PTSD, but women don’t have to suffer the rest of their lives. While PTSD and trauma can be life-changing, therapy and other treatments illustrate that they don’t have to be life-ending.


About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor who has written about gender, physical and mental health, business, and other topics.


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