New study suggests PTSD symptoms may be different for men and women; hyperarousal, sleep issues worse in females

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe psychiatric disorder that occurs in people who have experienced a traumatic life event and it may have serious as well as lifelong consequences. Some studies have shown that people with PTSD are twice as likely to develop dementia in later life; the risk of substance abuse, memory problems, anxiety disorders and other health issues also increase.  Recently, studies have established a link between the brain fog associated with COVID-19 and PTSD, making awareness about PTSD even more of a necessity.

Myupchar October 26, 2020 16:13:04 IST
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New study suggests PTSD symptoms may be different for men and women; hyperarousal, sleep issues worse in females

PTSD symptoms are tougher on women. Image courtesy MismibaTinasheMadando/Wikimedia Commons

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe psychiatric disorder that occurs in people who have experienced a traumatic life event and it may have serious as well as lifelong consequences. Some studies have shown that people with PTSD are twice as likely to develop dementia in later life; the risk of substance abuse, memory problems, anxiety disorders and other health issues also increase.

Recently, studies have established a link between the brain fog associated with COVID-19 and PTSD, making awareness about PTSD even more of a necessity. What many people don’t realise is that just like heart disease, autoimmune diseases and even osteoporosis, men and women are likely to have vastly different experiences of PTSD.

Gender differences in PTSD

The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that men experience more traumatic events on average during their lifetime than women do and yet women are more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. A 2006 study in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that women are more likely to experience sexual assault and child sexual abuse and that sexual trauma is likely to cause more severe suffering and therefore increase the risk of PTSD.

Men, according to this study, experience more traumatic events due to their bigger (and often traditional) role in war and emergency services. The trauma they experience is more likely to be related to accidents, non-sexual assaults, witnessing death or injury, disasters or fires and their response and combat or war experience. Such experiences may be more frequent for these men but the trauma they cause does not lead to PTSD as often as it does in the case of women.

PTSD susceptibility, resilience and recovery

A study in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology in 2017 suggests that women generally score higher than men on the acute subjective responses and predictors associated with PTSD primarily because they have evolved to handle traumatic or stressful situations differently. This study suggests that instead of the assumed fight-or-flight response to a traumatic event (which men more frequently respond with) women tend to react with a tend-and-befriend response.

Their response to trauma is more emotion-focused, defensive and centred on palliative coping rather than problem-focused coping meaning that instead of working to solve the problem that caused their trauma, women tend to focus on treating, suppressing or neglecting the trauma. Women also tend to seek more social support in the face of trauma and the lack of this support is considered to be the most consistent predictor of PTSD.

Due to these differences in both physiological and psychological response to trauma, men and women have very different susceptibilities towards PTSD and it’s, therefore, natural that the treatment and recovery for both genders must be devised accordingly. Preclinical researches on these gender differences in PTSD are still sparse, which hinders the creation of proper care.

PTSD symptom differences in men and women

The findings of a recent study published in Molecular Psychiatry may have new contributions in this regard, as scientists at Scripps Research, USA, set out to map the neurological differences in the brains of males and females when faced with traumatic events. The study was conducted on rodents and the scientists examined behavioural and sleep patterns, inflammatory immune responses and the levels of a neurotransmitter known as gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is known to reduce anxiety levels and improve resilience to stress.

The researchers found that males and females have distinct symptoms and brain features associated with PTSD, most notably in the patterns of GABA signalling. Male rodents had a higher GABA receptor function, while females showed increased GABA release. This indicates that men may respond better to medications that regulate GABA than women do, making it more difficult for women to get better with the same treatment.

The study also showed that the immune system of the males released more cytokines and was, therefore, more likely to have substance abuse susceptibility. The female rodents did not show the same cytokine response. Males also showed higher fear generalisation, while females experienced more hyperarousal, sleep disturbances and inflammation. These differences in the symptoms of male and female rodents in PTSD settings clearly indicate that not only are sex differences in PTSD common but also that more research is urgently needed in this direction to make gender-appropriate therapies available to all.

For more information, read our article on Post-traumatic stress disorder

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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