How PTSD Affects Female Veterans

The military is facing new challenges in understanding the toll combat has on the psyche of female veterans; specifically, when it comes to mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its association with substance use disorders (SUD).

Not only is post-traumatic stress disorder prevalent in military veterans, but more female veterans and active duty are being diagnosed with the disorder at a rate that far surpasses their male counterparts. While women are far more likely to experience a traumatic event compared to men, we have only begun to breach the surface of the topic of PTSD and female veterans.

This is partly because, despite being officially allowed to serve in 1948, there was a strict ban on allowing female soldiers to fulfill combat Military Occupational Specialties until 2013.1 However, seeing action while on active duty isn’t the only source of PTSD-related stress these female veterans are experiencing.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition characterized by an individual’s difficulty recovering from experiencing or witnessing a traumatizing event.2 The condition can last anywhere from a few months to years, involving triggers that can bring back vivid memories of the traumatizing event along with intense emotional and physical reactions.3

The most common symptoms of PTSD include the following:3

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Avoidance of triggering situations
  • Hypervigilance
  • Heightened reactions (such as anger) to triggers
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Memory loss
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Feelings of numbness

Roughly 6 in every 100 Americans will experience PTSD in their lifetime—that’s 6% of the population.2 However, women are more than twice as likely to experience a traumatic event and develop PTSD than men.4

PTSD Gender Differences

While both genders have the potential to express any of the common PTSD symptoms, certain symptoms are likely to show as more typical of one gender compared to the other. Moreover, the symptoms in women tend to be much more obvious. This is for two reasons—the first being that women are more likely to experience PTSD in their lives.4 The second is because men and women show relatively different emotional expressivity to positive and negative stimuli.5 This also may be an explanation as to why women are more prone to mood disorders.5

When we break down the prevalence of symptoms by gender, women with PTSD experience less memory loss and cognitive impairment whereas men appear to have a much more sensitive hyperarousal system because of their trauma. This means that men are more likely to experience feelings of paranoia and impulsivity while women are more prone to feelings of depression, anxiety, and numbness.4

While it remains unclear as to whether gender differences truly play a role in the overall emotional experience, several studies have shown that women, in comparison to men, tend to experience more frequent and stronger negative emotions.5

Stressors Women Face in the Military

So far, we understand that women experience much higher rates of PTSD than men, especially female veterans. But why?

For starters, entering the military already puts women at a higher-than-normal risk for exposure to traumatic events, especially with the growing number of women in combat situations.4 However, there are certain experiences that so many women are exposed to in the military—and that’s instances of sexual harassment and sexual assault.6

This is also referred to as military sexual trauma (MST) and can occur at any time. The statistics are as follows:6

  • 55% of women experience sexual assault while serving in the military.
  • Only 23% of women have reported their sexual assault while in the military.

Additionally, sexual assault is more likely to cause PTSD compared to many other events.4

PTSD and Substance Abuse

Research has found that individuals with PTSD are 3 times more likely to abuse substances.7 In addition, individuals seeking treatment for PTSD are 14 times more likely to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder.7 The attempt to “self-medicate” with drugs or alcohol may be a contributing factor.7

The signs of substance abuse aren’t always obvious at first, but they may look like:8

  • Decreased appetite or weight loss.
  • Looking sickly, such as bloodshot eyes and paler skin.
  • Noticeable changes in behavior.
  • Responding angrily or becoming argumentative when asked about substance use.
  • A lack of motivation and even poor work performance.
  • Changes in spending habits and issues with personal finances.

Finding Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

When someone suffers from both PTSD or another mood disorder in conjunction with a substance use disorder, it’s referred to as a co-occurring disorder (or a dual diagnosis). Co-occurring disorders should be treated together—mental health and substance dependency—to ensure the best possible outcome regarding recovery.9

This type of treatment often involves an integrated approach that involves the same steps as drug rehab with the addition of psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy to address the underlying disorder that caused the substance use in the first place.

If you or someone you care for is struggling with a co-occurring disorder and looking for drug rehab in Las Vegas, Desert Hope Treatment Center offers a specialized treatment program. Give our rehab admissions navigators a call to help kickstart your recovery .

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