- About 10% of American women will develop PTSD following a traumatic event at some point in their life.
- Anxiety and depression, numbness, or guilt and blame can all be symptoms of PTSD in women.
- Below, we outline all symptoms and treatments for women with PTSD.
This article may be triggering for people who have experienced severe trauma. Please take caution before reading.
If you’ve lived through a horrific car crash, a sexual assault, or another dangerous situation, you’ve experienced trauma. Unfortunately, about half of women will experience trauma during their life.
If you’re still struggling to live your daily life a month after a traumatic experience, you may have post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This is a mental health condition where you have intense, disturbing thoughts related to the trauma you experienced, says Tara Galovski, director of the Women’s Health Sciences Division at the National Center for PTSD.
About 10% of American women will develop PTSD during their lifetime. The diagnostic criteria for PTSD is the same for everyone, but there are differences in how the symptoms typically present in women, says Linda Baggett, a psychologist who specializes in treating women with PTSD and other mental health concerns.
Women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD, and recognizing these differences can help women get a diagnosis, receive effective treatments for PTSD, and overcome their trauma.
“Too often I see behaviors that are caused by PTSD and trauma, such as emotional reactivity, dismissed as women being ’emotional’ or being mistaken for borderline personality disorder or bipolar disorder, without anybody taking the time to assess for trauma and PTSD,” Baggett says.
Continue reading to learn more about the signs and symptoms of PTSD in women.
Signs of PTSD in women
There are four main types of symptoms of PTSD in the general population. They are:
- Re-experiencing symptoms: including flashbacks, bad dreams and scary thoughts
- Avoidance symptoms: like staying away from places or people that remind you of the trauma, or avoiding thinking about the trauma.
- Arousal and reactivity symptoms: like being jumpy, on edge, easily startled, angry, or having trouble sleeping.
- Cognition and mood symptoms: including having trouble remembering details about the event, having negative thoughts about yourself or the world, experiencing blame or guilt, and lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy.
Oftentimes, PTSD exhibit symptoms will be similar among all genders, Galovski says. However, there can be nuanced differences in how PTSD presents in women. Recognizing these differences is important to ensure that women get proper diagnosis and treatment.
Here are some symptoms of PTSD that are common in women:
Depression and anxiety
Compared to men with PTSD, women with the condition are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and panic attacks, Galovski says.
Symptoms of depression can include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness; changes to your eating habits or activity level; irritability, and more. Signs of anxiety include restlessness, worry and fatigue. Panic attacks can bring on physical symptoms like a racing heart and shallow breathing. If these feelings develop or worsen after trauma, you should see a doctor – your primary care physician is a good start, but a therapist will likely be more helpful in the long run.
Women with PTSD often experience more reactivity symptoms than men, like jumpiness. You may find that you’re easily startled, or on edge. This can lead to symptoms including a racing heart, shallow breathing and even a rise in blood pressure.
Avoidance or hyper focus
Anyone with PTSD experiences some avoidance of people, places, thoughts, or things that remind them of the trauma. This is especially common in females.
“Women often avoid their trauma by pouring themselves into their career or parenting so that they are busy 100% of the time, and there is no downtime for their mind to wander where they don’t want it to go,” Baggett says.
“This can make it hard to recognize since they seem so high functioning, but you can be high functioning with others and really suffering internally or in intimate relationships.”
Women with PTSD may feel numb, or like they have no emotions. You may lose interest in hobbies, feel flat or disinterested, and have trouble forming attachments with others or continuing relationships you had before the trauma.
This can also manifest as feeling frozen. “Women often describe a ‘freeze response’ when reminded of their traumas, feeling paralyzed and unable to react despite feeling a pounding heart, difficulty breathing, and muscle tension,” Baggett says.
Blame and guilt
Women with PTSD can have intense feelings of blame (especially self-blame) or guilt, Baggett says. That’s concerning, since guilt can make PTSD symptoms worse.
This may have to do with the types of trauma that women experience. Women are more likely to experience sexual assault, and sexual assault survivors often feel self-blame, guilt, or shame.
Women often experience trauma at the hands of someone they know, including their intimate partners or family members. That can lead to a lasting sense of distrust, especially of men, Baggett says.
“Women tend to understandably struggle with the belief that no men are safe or trustworthy after trauma,” she says. “This can be really difficult since men are 50% of the population and disproportionately represented in positions of power.”
Physical aches and pains
Women may experience somatic symptoms, or those that manifest in the body, Galovski says. These can include fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headache or other physical ailments.
Substance abuse is a sign of PTSD in both men and women, though men are more likely to abuse substances than women.
That said, compared to women without PTSD, women with PTSD are twice as likely to abuse alcohol, and four times as likely to abuse drugs.
If you are using drugs or alcohol to cope with trauma, a therapist can be useful in finding healthy coping mechanisms without judgment. Women can be particularly at risk for alcohol abuse immediately following a trauma, Galovski says.
PTSD treatments for women
PTSD is diagnosed through an evaluation by a mental health professional. Once you are diagnosed, treatments can help you to reduce your symptoms and recover from PTSD.
Some treatments for PTSD, including cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure, were originally developed and tested with female survivors of rape and sexual trauma, Galovski says. Other treatments for PTSD include EMDR therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and other psychotherapies. Sometimes medications including antidepressants are also used to treat PTSD.
Interestingly, women with PTSD may benefit more from treatment than men with PTSD do.
“A handful of studies have shown that men may drop out of therapy prematurely more so than women, and that women may improve a bit more than men,” Galovski says.
Women are twice as likely to experience PTSD than men are. The signs of PTSD in women can include depression and anxiety, jumpiness and distrust, and physical symptoms like joint aches or headaches.
All of these are part of the four main types of symptoms that PTSD can cause. And yet, sometimes symptoms of PTSD in women are misunderstood or misdiagnosed. Understanding the ways that PTSD presents in women can get you the diagnosis and treatment that can help you recover.
“Although the bad things that happen to people cannot be erased, people do not need to live with this disorder,” Galovski says.