Symptoms of PTSD in Women

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Research suggests that women may experience some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) differently than men. They are also more likely to develop the condition following trauma, but it usually takes much longer for women to be diagnosed.

Statistics suggest that women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD at some point in their lives. They also tend to experience these symptoms for longer periods and are more sensitive to reminders of their trauma.

Learn more about some of the key signs of PTSD in women. Recognizing these signs can lead to an earlier diagnosis, which can help relieve an individual’s distress and improve treatment outcomes.

Signs and Symptoms

It’s normal to feel upset, anxious, or frightened after something scary happens. For many people, such feelings gradually fade in the days and weeks after a traumatic event, but these symptoms can become more serious for others.

PTSD is marked by feelings of distress, anxiety, and reliving the traumatic event. People sometimes relive the events and avoid anything that might remind them of the trauma they endured. Common symptoms of PTSD include:

People who have PTSD also have an increased risk for suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How PTSD Differs in Women

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that women experience more distress than men on almost all symptoms identified on the PTSD Checklist, Civilian Version (PCL-C). The PTSD Checklist is a self-report scale containing 17 items that correspond to the key symptoms of PTSD.

Some symptoms that seem to be more common in women with this condition include:

Avoidance 

Avoidance is a core symptom of PTSD. It can involve emotional avoidance, which includes avoiding the thoughts and feelings that might remind the individual about the traumatic events. It can also involve behavioral avoidance, characterized by avoiding places, people, or other environmental triggers that remind the person of the trauma.

One study found that thought avoidance was one of the most common PTSD symptoms among women.

While this avoidance may prevent distress in the short term, research suggests that trying to avoid thoughts or emotions can actually make PTSD symptoms worse over the long term.

Hyperarousal

Hyperarousal is another key symptom of PTSD that involves a heightened state of anxiety. Symptoms can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Excessive startle reflex
  • Hypervigilance
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Problems concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Panic attacks

Research has found that women who developed PTSD after serving in the military score higher on measures of hyperarousal than men.

Re-experiencing the Trauma

Re-experiencing is another major symptom of PTSD that involves experiencing unwanted, intrusive thoughts or memories related to the trauma. Some of the ways people might experience this include having frequent thoughts about the trauma, experiencing nightmares, or having flashbacks where it feels as if the trauma is happening all over again.

Research suggests that women tend to experience this symptom more frequently than men.

These symptoms can be distressing and frightening, particularly because people are generally unable to recognize that what they are experiencing is a flashback.

Because re-experiencing feels all too real, people have the physical and emotional responses they would face if dealing with a real threat.

Emotional Numbness

Emotional numbness involves shutting down feelings that may be overwhelming or highly distressing. It is often marked by feeling detached from others, lacking emotion, losing interest, difficulty feeling positive emotions, and social isolation.

It is a common symptom of PTSD where it serves as a way to avoid the painful thoughts or memories related to trauma.

Complications and Comorbidities

Other conditions may be confused with PTSD or may even occur alongside the condition. Such conditions may include:

It is not uncommon for people who have PTSD to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol or other substances.

One study found that women who experienced emotional numbing were more likely to cope by engaging in risky alcohol consumption.

Why Women Experience PTSD Differently

Why do men and women tend to experience PTSD differently? One theory centers on the different ways that men and women tend to experience mental health problems. Women are more likely to experience internalizing disorders (such as anxiety and depression), where men are more likely to be affected by externalizing disorders (such as substance use disorders). 

The diagnostic criteria for PTSD tend to focus more on internalizing symptoms, so it makes sense that women are more prone to developing this condition. After experiencing trauma, men may be more likely to develop problems marked by externalizing symptoms such as substance use.

Regardless of the different reasons why women may experience PTSD differently, research suggests that many women wait longer to seek treatment or never seek treatment at all. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, men typically go a year after the condition's onset before being diagnosed and starting treatment. Women, on the other hand, average four years between the start of symptoms and diagnosis.

Untreated PTSD can have serious consequences in terms of both physical and mental health. People with untreated PTSD may be more likely to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol or substance use. Women may also experience physical symptoms such as stomach issues, sexual dysfunction, and headaches.

Common Myths or Misconceptions

While mental health awareness has helped many people better understand conditions such as PTSD, there is still a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding the condition. Such stigma often arises due to the number of myths and misconceptions about the disorder. Some common myths include:

Myth: Only Combat Veterans Get PTSD

Anyone can get PTSD after a traumatic or stressful event, not just those who have served in the military and experienced combat. Sexual assault, domestic violence, natural disasters, and child abuse are all situations that can cause PTSD. Sometimes people don’t need to actually experience the trauma themselves. Witnessing a traumatic event can also lead to the onset of the condition.

Myth: It Will Get Better With Time

While people often say that pain lessens with time, this isn't always the case. Some of the symptoms of PTSD, such as anxiety and avoidance, can actually grow worse over time. This is why getting an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment are so important. Symptoms of PTSD can be debilitating and take a serious toll on a person's well-being.

Myth: People With PTSD Are Violent

While some people do experience anger and irritability as symptoms of PTSD, it is important to recognize that the way people experience this condition varies from one person to the next. The symptoms of PTSD can be incredibly distressing, painful, and challenging for several reasons. This doesn't mean that people who have the condition are violent or pose a danger to others.

Myth: It’s a Sign of Weakness

People often don’t seek help for PTSD and other mental health conditions because they think that their symptoms are a sign of failure or weakness. It is important to know that having PTSD after trauma does not mean that you are weaker than other people.

Anyone can develop the condition because it is linked to changes in how the brain works. These changes are not something you can control, nor use willpower to overcome. 

Myth: PTSD Cannot Be Treated

Effective treatments for PTSD are available and include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, and medications.

If you or a loved one have experienced a stressful or traumatic event, it is important to watch for signs of PTSD. Because women may experience more internalizing symptoms, the signs of the condition may be harder to spot. 

Only a licensed professional can diagnose the condition, so reach out to a professional if you are having symptoms. Once you receive a diagnosis, your therapist can work with you to develop a treatment plan that will help you learn to cope with the trauma and improve your well-being. 

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