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The Female Face Of PTSD

woman sitting in a window

Most of us are socially aware enough to know by now that members of the military and veterans of war are not the only individuals susceptible to experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Yet, while we know that anyone can develop this debilitating disorder, regardless of sex or occupation, if asked to close our eyes and put a face to PTSD, many of us would still envision an image of a shaken-up soldier or a struggling veteran in our minds.

Yet, approximately half of the eight million individuals who have PTSD in the United States are women. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, women are about twice as likely as men to develop PTSD in their lifetimes, and around 10% of all women will experience PTSD at some point throughout their lives, compared to 4% of men.

Perhaps, it’s the people we don’t picture when we think of PTSD who are most profoundly impacted by this particular paradigm. Because, statistically speaking, the face of an individual suffering from PTSD is far more likely to be covered in concealer than it is camouflage paint; it is more likely to be bruised and beaten at the hands of a domestic partner than an enemy combatant. It’s more probable a person with PTSD is flashing back to a violent sexual assault than reliving an IED explosion.

The Worst Way

While women do not necessarily experience traumatic events more often than men, the specific types of traumas women typically experience are more likely to result in PTSD than those that men are prone to experiencing. Women are more likely to endure traumatic events that involve high levels of fear, vigilance, shame, and self-blame. Specifically, women are more likely to be subjected to rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse as a child, as 91% of all rape and sexual assault victims are female, and only 9% are male.

Men are more likely to experience trauma that involves physical assault, accidents, disasters, combat, war, death, and injury. When considering the different types of trauma prone to each sex, it is clear that the specific trauma women are more likely to endure are more likely to result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Statistics based on data from recent wars reveal that approximately 14% of veterans developed PTSD after returning home from deployment abroad. Yet, 50% of female rape victims develop PTSD.  

Women are also more likely to experience trauma within established relationships than men. Therefore, the types of trauma typically experience by women occur more frequently and over longer durations than their male counterparts (four years versus one year). Additional traumatic events that often lead women to develop PTSD are serious automobile accidents, illnesses, distressing childbirth, miscarriage, or witnessing a loved one endure a severely traumatic event.

A Good Girl

Studies also show women are more likely to develop PTSD as a result of trauma that took place in an environment where traditional gender roles are deeply-rooted. In these instances, women tend to feel more vulnerable after a traumatic event takes place and are often left feeling as though they lack a sense of control, power, and agency over their own lives. Furthermore, additional emotional turmoil can arise when a traumatic event ultimately interferes with a woman’s ability to fulfill her societally-assigned ‘female duties.’

Clinical Psychologist Nadene van der Linden, explains, “It’s important for women to remember that an experience does not need to be life-threatening in order for it to be traumatic. Trauma can incorporate the experience of feeling unheard, powerless, alone, coercion, and even an absence of basic kindness and respect.”

Like a Lady

Women and men tend to turn to different coping mechanisms under challenging circumstances. One study recently found that while men as often rely on “fight or flight” responses when faced with stressful situations, women often rely on a “tend and befriend” response to stress. “Tending and befriending” involves taking care of others instead of engaging in acts of self-care, as well as a tendency to rely more on others and less on themselves when seeking relief from stress and discomfort.

Different Animals

Gender-neutral symptoms of PTSD often include avoidance, depression, anxiety, mood swings, bouts of rage, a sense of emotional numbness, migraines, flashbacks, and nightmares. Yet, there are specific symptoms of PTSD often uniquely observed in females who have PTSD. These symptoms can include body dysphoria, eating disorders, trust issues, isolation, and avoidance of romantic relationships.

The Un-Silenced Treatment

The good news is that PTSD is highly treatable. The not-so-great news is that it’s only highly treatable when properly diagnosed. According to van der Linden, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) are ‘treatments that can help women develop healthier mindsets about themselves and what they have survived.’

Additional therapies for effectively treating PTSD include exposure therapy, behavioral treatment for PTSD, and occasionally treatment with antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.

A Loaded Question

Perhaps, the opposing connotations inherent in the answering of one straightforward question provides the most profound juxtaposition of the vast cultural space that exists between men and women’s experience of PTSD.

“Why do you have PTSD?”

Our society tends to view soldiers as culturally gloried symbols of freedom, strength, and patriotism. Their experiences often portray that which most of us have only seen happening abroad or on the news and in movies. Yet, female rape victims continue to be viewed through a cultural lens notorious for portraying an oversimplified, misunderstood, and often vilified archetype.

Women who have been raped or sexually assaulted are all to often instantaneously categorized into one of three categories: liar, whore, or victim. If women aren’t able to safely admit what they’re going through without being inundated with additional judgment, shame, or embarrassment, how can they even begin to have the hope of healing?

If, as a society, we are still uncomfortable hearing a woman’s answer to this question, how can we ever expect them to feel comfortable answering it honestly? We certainly can’t fix, erase, or even prevent the traumas experienced by men nor by women. But one thing we can and must be willing to do is take a long, hard, and honest look at Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, regardless of the sex and circumstances of the person experiencing it.

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