How Does Trauma Discriminate Between Men and Women?
“Men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” goes the well-known saying from a book by that name. The same saying may help to describe how men and women can respond differently to an overwhelming event or trauma such as childhood abuse, rape, an accident, natural disaster or war, among other potentially traumatic experiences (PTEs).
Trauma is one of the biggest contributors to substance abuse. Additionally, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a very common co-occurring dual diagnosis among the substance abuse treatment population. That is why knowing how trauma discriminates between men and women is so critical: gender differences with respect to trauma exposure and PTSD can require gender-specific approaches to drug and alcohol treatment. What follows is a quick rundown of how trauma discriminates between men and women, to help you discern whether a gender-specific approach to treatment and recovery may be right for you.
PTSD and Trauma: Their Military Origins
Let’s start with a little background. Trauma and PTSD first came into focus in the 1980s as an issue that seemed to impact predominantly men. PTSD first got its name when returning (male) Vietnam vets described similar post-war symptoms in the way of flashbacks, nightmares, extreme anxiety, insomnia and dramatic mood disturbances.
Today, a growing body of research has established that the term “trauma” can describe a much wider category of experiences than those on the battlefield and in a line of work once relegated to men. That discovery has in turn put to bed the notions that trauma mostly affects men and that trauma and PTSD are exclusively combat-related. On the contrary, evidence is stacking up to suggest that PTE’s and PTSD more often than not impact women and in different ways than men.
Gender Differences in Trauma and PTSD
Here’s how these gender differences break down in greater detail:
- Women and girls are more likely to show the diagnostic symptoms of PTSD than men and boys.
- A woman’s risk of developing PTSD is roughly two times that of a man’s risk of developing PTSD. (That is especially notable since men by and large report experiencing more traumatic events than women.)
- Females are more likely than males to report an experience of rape, sexual assault or child abuse, and these particular PTE’s (rape, sexual assault, etc.) correlate with a greater likelihood of developing PTSD than do other PTE’s (such as accidents, disasters or the witness of death or violence).
Why PTSD Affects More Women Than Men
A definitive explanation for why PTSD affects more women than men is still elusive, because of the many variables that can present themselves in clinical studies of PTSD and gender. Researchers theorize, however, that PTSD affects more women than men on the basis of several factors:
- the type of trauma (in this case, a greater frequency of rape or sexual abuse among women)
- the younger age at which women tend to experience trauma
- stronger perceptions among women of threats and loss of control
- higher levels of post-traumatic “disassociation” (disconnection between thoughts, memories and self-identity)
- insufficient social supports
- greater use of alcohol to manage trauma-related associations
- female-specific, acute psychobiological reactions to trauma
Trauma, PTSD and Gender-Specific Substance Abuse Treatment
Such findings reinforce a large body of evidence that suggests there are gender differences in the treatment needs of those who abuse drugs or alcohol. For example, those in substance abuse treatment who have experienced a past sexual trauma may benefit from group processing with others of the same gender. Preliminary research suggests that for some women at least, such gender-specific approaches lead to better recovery outcomes, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).