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Assaults Take Greater Psychological Toll on Women

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To eliminate the possibility that women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than men and that sexual assault may have more serious effects than other kinds of assault, the researchers excluded data from those people who were sexually assaulted. Women were found to be at increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder following an assault that was not sexual, but were not at increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder if the trauma did not involve assault of any nature.

 

Naomi Breslau, PhD, who has also investigated gender differences in post-traumatic stress disorder, came to a similar conclusion. "This finding is very important, although it needs [to be repeated]. ... It looks like women are more vulnerable than men to develop PTSD following certain types of events that involve intentional or 'assaultive' violence ... but they may not have a greater vulnerability to PTSD if they are exposed to a disaster or accident." Breslau is affiliated with the department of psychiatry of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

 

Thus, says Breslau, one cannot say that women are simply psychologically weaker than men in handling trauma. Rather, post-traumatic stress disorder might be more likely to develop when a victim is personally threatened by the inequality in strength between the victim and an attacker who is physically stronger.

 

Breslau also says that the propensity to develop post-traumatic stress disorder might really be a consequence of pre-existing mental health problems, like anxiety or depression. She says that few people have only post-traumatic stress disorder. "So far, I've come to the conclusion that people who get this disorder are at risk for other reasons -- not particularly that [experiencing] the event is all-powerful or the ultimate explanation of the outcome."

 

The adverse consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder can range from relatively mild or moderate symptoms that a person can live with in his or her everyday life to symptoms that are completely incapacitating, Friedman says.

 

"The bad news is that women are more likely to develop PTSD than men. The good news is that we have good treatments for PTSD and they are getting better all the time," Friedman says. He cites the availability of counseling therapies and the recent approval of an antidepressant called Zoloft (sertraline) for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Vital Information:

  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder include recurring nightmares or reminders of the event, becoming emotionally numb, sleep problems, inability to focus intellectually, feeling anxious or jumpy, and frequently looking over your shoulder.
  • A recent survey found that most people were exposed to a serious traumatic event in their lifetime and that post-traumatic stress disorder was a relatively rare outcome, although it affected four times as many women as men.
  • The propensity to develop post-traumatic stress disorder may reflect pre-existing medical conditions, such as anxiety or depression, but there are treatments for the disorder, including counseling and medication.
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