When we think of PTSD our first thoughts are usually of men in combat gear having horrific flashbacks to their days in the war. As usual, films have lied to us about the realities of life, and while service men do suffer greatly from the disorder, more than two-thirds of the people with the condition are actually women. While most of us will experience some form of traumatic experience in our lives, for one in thirteen people, this will turn into PTSD. Individuals suffering from PTSD will experience feelings of anxiety, stress and depression and can have panic attacks triggered from remembrance of the trauma. This can in turn lead to avoidance and isolation from people and places which might trigger such a reaction. PTSD can last for months and even years, with the more chronic cases being linked to physical health problems such as a higher risk of heart attack, stroke and type 2 diabetes, as well as chronic pain. So it is very important that a way to prevent PTSD is found.
Sexual assault is the most likely trauma to lead to PTSD. With one in three women having experienced some form of sexual assault, they are already at a higher risk of developing PTSD symptoms. Those who were abused as children are also more likely to develop PTSD following trauma in later life, and again, this is more likely to be women, with one in 5 girls, compared to one in twenty boys being victims of childhood sexual abuse. The fact that women are more likely to already have pre-existing anxiety and depression could contribute to the higher levels of PTSD developing. However, regardless of the nature of the incident, women are still more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD, suggesting that there are genetic factors.
One idea is that PTSD is more likely to occur in individuals with particular variations of receptor genes for serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for moderating our mood and stress levels. But that would not explain differences between genders. However, the protein that we use to regulate our stress response, PACAP, may give us answers in this area. Women who displayed symptoms of PTSD were also found to have a higher amount of PACAP in their blood, whereas men did not. This difference is thought to be due to levels of oestrogen, as women often find that they are more anxious when their oestrogen levels are lower. Therefore, it is believed that introducing higher levels of oestrogen can aid recovery for PTSD symptoms. This is supported by findings from cases of rape in which women who were administered an emergency contraceptive containing the hormone were found to experience fewer symptoms of PTSD than women who had not been given the oestrogen filled pill.
It is important to change what we know about PTSD; thinking that it is only related to combat experiences ignores the majority of sufferers. But to say that PTSD is a ‘women’s thing’ may stop men from seeking the help that they need.