Assaults Take Greater Psychological Toll on Women
July 17, 2000 -- Being exposed to a traumatic event can have
serious psychological consequences for anyone, but women have a greater risk of
developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after an assault than men do.
They had about the same risk as men when it came to coping with a trauma that
did not involve assault, according to a recent study.
Experiencing such a trauma is more common than most people
think. Nearly 80% of people in a Canadian community reported that they had been
exposed to a serious traumatic event in their lifetimes. "One of the
interesting things is that, even in peacetime United States and Canada, the
likelihood that any of us will be exposed to at least one traumatic event in
our lifetime is very high," Matthew J. Friedman, MD, executive director of
the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, tells WebMD.
"Another important thing we learn from this study is that
women are at greater risk of developing PTSD following an assaultive trauma
situation, whether it's a sexual or nonsexual assault," says Friedman, who
is a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Dartmouth Medical School in
Post-traumatic stress disorder is the term doctors use for a
variety of disturbing, intense psychological symptoms a person may experience
following exposure to a traumatic event. These include a serious threat to life
or physical health (such as rape or mugging) or involvement, either personally
or through the experience of a loved one, in a major catastrophe. Affected
individuals often report recurring nightmares or reminders of the traumatic
event and may become emotionally numb, Friedman says.
Other symptoms include sleep problems, inability to focus
intellectually, feeling anxious and jumpy, and constantly looking over the
shoulder. "These people are often miserable and may develop health
problems, such as smoking or drinking. For the families, the person can be
quite difficult to help or live with," Friedman tells WebMD.
To look at whether women and men react differently to trauma,
researchers in Winnipeg surveyed over 1,000 men and women, none of whom had
sought help for any psychological problems.
The people were asked whether they had experienced any severe
traumatic events during their lifetimes. These included sexual traumas, such as
rape or sexual molestation; non-sexual assault, such as robbery, mugging, or
being held up, threatened with a weapon, kidnapped, held captive, or beaten up;
or trauma not involving assault, such as being in a serious motor vehicle
accident, witnessing a violent death or severe injury, or being involved in a
fire or natural disaster. They were also asked about whether they had any
symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the previous month.
Results of the study, published in the journal Behavior
Research and Therapy, showed that 74% of the women and 82% of the men
questioned had been exposed to at least one traumatic event. However, although
post-traumatic stress disorder was relatively rare, women were four times more
likely to report post-traumatic stress disorder than the men, according to the
author of the study, Murray B. Stein, MD, of the University of California, San