Trauma can change your life in profound ways. While not everyone who experiences or witnesses a traumatic event will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), those that do frequently suffer in silence. More than half of all women will be exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, according to the National Center for PTSD.
Despite significant strides over the past decades, there is still a stigma around mental health, especially for those seeking treatment after a sexual assault. Many survivors choose not to disclose their experiences due to fear, shame, stigma, or distrust in the justice system.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex mental health condition that can have a significant impact on an individual's well-being. While both men and women can develop PTSD, research consistently demonstrates that women are more susceptible to this disorder.
Symptoms of PTSD in Women
Symptoms of PTSD can manifest differently in individuals, but there are some common symptoms specific to women. It's important to note that these symptoms can vary in severity and may fluctuate over time. Here are some symptoms of PTSD commonly experienced by women:
Intrusive Thoughts and Memories
Women with PTSD may experience recurrent, distressing thoughts or memories related to the traumatic event. These intrusive thoughts can be intrusive and difficult to control. They may also have vivid flashbacks or nightmares, which can recreate the trauma and cause intense emotional distress.
Women may engage in avoidant behaviors to cope with the trauma. This can involve avoiding places, activities, or people that remind them of the traumatic event. They may also avoid discussing or thinking about the event, leading to emotional detachment and a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
Women with PTSD often struggle with emotional regulation. They may experience heightened anxiety, irritability, anger outbursts, or intense feelings of sadness or guilt. They may also have difficulty experiencing positive emotions or feeling emotionally numb.
PTSD can also manifest in physical symptoms. Women may experience physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, or fatigue. These physical symptoms can be a result of the stress and anxiety associated with PTSD.
Understanding the Connection: Sexual Assault and PTSD
One common misconception about PTSD is it is a primarily male combat-related disorder. As the prevalence of PTSD is higher in women, particularly in those with greater event exposure.
PTSD is a natural response to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It can occur in individuals who have experienced sexual assault as their brain and body react to the trauma. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists sexual assault as a specific trauma that can lead to PTSD.
The National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that 76% of sexually assaulted women were attacked by a current or former husband, co-habitating partner, friend, or date. Strangers committed only 18% of the assaults that were reported in this survey.
Sexual assault is just one type of trauma that can cause PTSD in women. Considering that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes in the U.S., the following statistics are staggering:
1 in 5 women has experienced completed or attempted rape in the U.S.
1 in 3 women worldwide has experienced either physical and/or sexual violence
Annually, 433,648 people ages 12+ are victims of rape/ sexual assault in the U.S.
Women and girls account for about 82% of the overall number of victims of sexual violence globally
Almost one-third of all rape victims develop PTSD sometime during their lives
11% of rape victims currently suffer from PTSD
Research consistently shows that sexual assault survivors, particularly women, are at a higher risk of developing PTSD compared to individuals who have not experienced such trauma. The severity and duration of the assault, as well as factors like prior trauma, social support, and coping mechanisms, can influence the risk of developing PTSD.
Is there a cure for PTSD?
While there is currently no known cure for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there are various treatments and approaches that can help women manage and alleviate symptoms. It's important to note that each individual's experience with PTSD is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Treatment options for PTSD in women generally include:
Therapy is a crucial component of PTSD treatment. Various types of therapy have shown effectiveness, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Prolonged Exposure Therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviors related to the traumatic event. It aims to replace negative thoughts with more positive and adaptive ones. Prolonged Exposure Therapy involves gradually exposing individuals to trauma-related memories and situations safely and controlled, helping them confront and process their fears.
In some cases, medications may be prescribed to help manage specific symptoms associated with PTSD, such as depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbances. Commonly prescribed medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and certain antidepressants.
Women with PTSD can benefit from a support system that includes friends, family, and support groups. Connecting with others who have experienced similar traumas can provide validation, understanding, and a sense of community.
Engaging in self-care practices can support overall well-being and help manage PTSD symptoms. These may include regular exercise, healthy eating, stress reduction techniques (such as mindfulness or meditation), and getting sufficient sleep.
It's important for women with PTSD to work with qualified mental health professionals who can assess their individual needs and develop a personalized treatment plan. Recovery from PTSD is a gradual process, and with the right support and treatment, many individuals can experience a reduction in symptoms and an improved quality of life.
It is essential to recognize the prevalence and impact of PTSD in women and ensure that comprehensive support and treatment options are available to address their specific needs. By raising awareness and promoting understanding, we can work towards a society that supports survivors and fosters healing and resilience. The higher prevalence of trauma and PTSD among women compared to men highlights the need for gender-sensitive approaches to prevention, intervention, and support. By understanding the factors contributing to this disparity and implementing effective strategies, we can empower women, promote healing, and work towards a more equitable society that supports survivors of trauma.
Seek Professional Help
If you've been sexually assaulted and suspect you are suffering symptoms of PTSD, reach out to a mental health professional. Confide in people you love and trust. Those who are in your life every day can support you and help you avoid triggers. You're not alone – one in 11 people is diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives.
Carried To Full Term (CTFT) is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization providing long-term housing to pregnant and homeless women. Our goal is to invest in stabilizing women and their families. We provide the tools, support, and resources to help women become independent and self-sufficient. Learn more about what we’re doing at carriedtofullterm.org and on our social media pages: facebook.com/carriedtofullterm and instagram.com/carriedtofullterm.
Give back and help women overcoming crisis situations, such as PTSD and sexual assault by becoming a Cycle Breaker Member for as little as $10/month. 100% of your gift goes towards helping women heal.
Rothbaum, B. O. & Foa, E. B. (1992). Subtypes of posttraumatic stress disorder and duration of symptoms. In J. R. T. Davidson & E. B. Foa (Eds.) Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: DSM-IV and Beyond. American Psychiatric Press: Washington, DC. (pp. 23-36).
Kilpatrick, D. G. (2000). The Mental Health Impact of Rape. National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.musc.edu/vawprevention/research/mentalimpact.shtml
Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (1998). Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey. National Institute of Justice Research in Brief. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/172837.pdf