What Causes Some Women To Develop PTSD Symptoms?
Multiple reasons explain why some women develop PTSD symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth edition (DSM-5), PTSD occurs more often in women than in men (APA, 2013). Indeed, women are approximately twice as likely as men to develop PTSD despite the fact that more men than women experience trauma (60% and 51%, respectively).
Fewer than four percent of people who experience trauma will develop PTSD, yet approximately four million women live with PTSD and PTSD symptoms in a given year. What causes PTSD symptoms in women?
Risk Factors That Cause Some Women To Develop PTSD, PTSD Symptoms
Women are vulnerable to PTSD because of the types of trauma they are likely to experience. The following traumatic events have the highest likelihood of leading to PTSD, and the top two of these traumas are more likely to be experienced by women:
Other risk factors for PTSD in women include
- History of mental health problems (anxiety, depression, etc.)
- Having a severe reaction at the time of the trauma
- The sudden death of a loved one
- Experiencing stressful events after the trauma
- Living through previous traumas
- Sexual abuse or neglect in childhood
- Tendency to blame themselves for the trauma
- Lack of adequate social support
PTSD Symptoms in Women: Postpartum PTSD
The act of childbirth can cause PTSD symptoms in women. Births that are unusually painful or involve one or more threats of serious injury or death to the mother, baby, or both can lead to postpartum PTSD. These symptoms can involve excessive:
After giving birth, about one third of women experience some PTSD symptoms, and approximately three- to seven percent of women develop full PTSD after childbirth (Leeder, 2015).
PTSD Symptoms in Women: The Female Brain
Women are at greater risk of sexual assault and domestic violence, and they are at greater risks for experiencing the effects of these assaults. The unique female brain and stress responses can cause PTSD symptoms in women.
The notion of “fight-or-flight” is fairly well known as a human response to threat or stressors. When threatened, the brain goes into overdrive and prepares people to fight the threat or to run. This is indeed accurate, but Sutton (2011) describes an instinctive stress response that is more accurate for women than is fight or flight: when faced with a threat or a stressor, the female brain reacts to promote the actions of “tend-and-befriend.”
To promote the tending-and-befriending response to a threat, a woman’s brain’s limbic system is activated. The limbic system is largely associated with emotions. Rather than being overpowered by a need to battle or to flee, women’s emotions are activated. These are intended to promote caring, compassion, and a desire to help, but sometimes the emotions are in line with the symptoms of PTSD. The female brain’s limbic system and tend-and-befriend stress response can explain PTSD symptoms in women.
The female brain is involved in PTSD in women in another way, too. Compared to men, women have higher levels of the hormone pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP). This hormone has been found to be present in PTSD, so the fact that PACAP is higher in females to begin with indicates that gender and the brain play a role in the development of PTSD in women.
PTSD in Women: Protective Factors
Certain risk factors as well as the female brain itself lend insights into why some women develop PTSD symptoms or full-blown PTSD. It seems that women are more vulnerable than men to developing PTSD. However, it also seems that women are generally more willing and able to seek out support and recovery help (The Recovery Ranch, 2012). Some protective factors women have in dealing with PTSD are:
- Willingness to be open about feelings and experiences
- Willingness to seek help (PTSD Treatments: PTSD Therapy, PTSD Medications Can Help)
- Ability to create support networks that include professionals, friends and support groups
Many things cause some women to develop PTSD symptoms, and many things make these same women able to recover fully. PTSD or PTSD symptoms in women don’t have to last a lifetime (How Long Does PTSD Last? Does PTSD Ever Go Away?).
Last Updated: 24 October 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD