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Evidence-Based Reviews

Posttraumatic stress disorder: How to meet women’s specific needs

Even uncomplicated labor and delivery may trigger flashbacks in victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Vol. 2, No. 3 / March 2003

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was first recognized as a diagnosis in male Vietnam War veterans, but studies since then have consistently found PTSD to be more common in women than in men. Understanding the gender-related differences in PTSD’s presentation can help us craft optimal treatment for women suffering with this persistent disorder.

Data from the National Comorbidity Survey suggest a lifetime PTSD prevalence of 10.4% in women and 5.0% in men. 1 PTSD also tends to be more chronic in women. In one study of patients with PTSD, median time from symptom onset to remission was 4 years for women and 1 year for men. 2

Evidence suggests that women:

  • experience more or different types of trauma than men, including labor and delivery, rape, and childhood sexual abuse
  • may react to trauma more often and more robustly than men because of sex hormones, cultural gender roles, or some combination of those factors.

How women experience trauma

Among studies that show gender differences in response to specific trauma, nearly all have found higher PTSD rates in women than in men. This pattern emerges early in life and is seen in children and adults.

A meta-analysis comparing PTSD symptoms in females and males of all ages after specific traumas 3 found that females were much more likely than males to report PTSD symptoms after some types of trauma but not others. None of the trauma types predicted PTSD more often for males than for females.

Amount of trauma. Men are more likely than women to be exposed to traumatic events, such as violent assault, during their lifetimes. 4 However, the types of trauma that women experience predominantly or exclusively—such as childhood sexual abuse, traumatic labor and delivery, pregnancy loss, severe health problems in a newborn, and prostitution—are rarely included in trauma questionnaires (Table 1). As a result, the full range of traumatic experiences in women’s lives is likely underestimated.

Instruments designed to measure trauma may inadvertently introduce gender bias in other ways. 5 For example, questionnaires asking about single traumatic events may underestimate the impact of repetitive traumas, such as childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, which are more frequently experienced by girls and women. Further, women may not acknowledge sexually linked traumas—such as childhood sexual abuse and rape—unless the questions are asked in a sensitive manner and describe specific behaviors.

Table 1



Childhood sexual abuse

Domestic violence

Pregnancy loss

Labor and delivery

Neonatal complications

Sexual abuse of a child


Types of trauma. Certain types of trauma are associated with especially high conditional risk of PTSD, defined as the risk of developing PTSD after being exposed to the trauma. Childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, and rape are among the traumas with the highest conditional risk, and women are more likely to be exposed to these trauma types than men. 6

Childhood sexual abuse has a particularly high conditional risk of PTSD. 7 Such abuse happens over long periods during developmentally vulnerable stages of life. Sexual abuse perpetrated by a family member creates a greater sense of betrayal than does trauma at the hands of a stranger or an impersonal force of nature. In many cases, the victims blame themselves.

Domestic violence, like sexual abuse, has a high conditional PTSD risk because of the intimate nature of the relationship and the usual pattern of multiple assaults over time.

Rape carries the highest conditional risk of any trauma, 8 possibly because of the degree to which rape violates a victim’s assumptions about the world as a reasonably safe place. 3 PTSD risk after rape is intensified when the victim blames himself or herself and when society—such as the family or court system—reinforces this tendency toward self-blame. 9

Influence of sex hormones. Neurophysiologic systems that lie beneath stress responses are closely linked with reproductive physiology. 10 Evolution may have favored this association, allowing reproductive efforts to shut down during extreme stress.

Key components of the primary stress-activated hormonal system—corticotropin-releasing hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and the glucocorticoids—inhibit secretion of gonadotropin-releasing hormone and the gonadotropins, the major reproductive hormones. In turn, sex hormones modulate hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis activity, stress-linked neurotransmitter changes, and behavioral responses to stress.

This intertwining of stress and reproductive hormones suggests that men’s and women’s physiologic response to trauma may differ. Women’s vulnerability to PTSD also may vary at different parts of their menstrual cycles, during pregnancy, or postpartum.

Several animal studies have shown a more intense HPA axis response to stress in females than in males’. 11 To date, however, studies have not shown clear gender differences in human physiologic response to trauma. Increased sympathetic nervous system activity, enhanced dexamethasone suppression of cortisol, and hippocampal atrophy have been found in both men and women with PTSD. 11,12

Some human studies suggest gender differences in PTSD-related neurophysiologic changes. For example, activation of both the sympathetic and adrenocortical systems (epinephrine and cortisol) has been seen in women with PTSD from childhood sexual abuse, whereas activation of only the sympathetic system (epinephrine but not cortisol) has been seen in men with combat-related PTSD. 13 Research with improved methodology is investigating whether sex hormones modulate human response to trauma.

Gender role differences. Because of cultural expectations, women may more easily acknowledge and report distress and feelings of being traumatized. 14 This behavioral difference may contribute to higher PTSD prevalence rates in women than in men. Women also may develop more negative beliefs in response to some types of trauma, such as nonsexual assault by a stranger. 3

Treating PTSD in women

Drug therapy. Antidepressants—including tricyclics, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—have shown efficacy in treating PTSD. Some studies have found that women respond more robustly to SSRI antidepressants than men. 15

Cognitive-behavioral therapy. Trauma victims tend to avoid reminders of the trauma. Although this coping strategy can provide short-term relief, it can also constrict a person’s life and preclude opportunities to correct distorted information. For example, a person may attribute danger to benign stimuli that were coincidentally associated with the trauma, such as fearing all men with mustaches after being raped by a man with a mustache. 3

Table 2


Reaction type



  • Tenses muscles when told to relax
  • Misdirects pushing energy to upper part of body


  • Assumes a fetal position
  • Hides under the covers
  • Speaks in a childlike voice


  • Disoriented to time and place
  • Relives abuse


  • Brings detailed lists of exactly how the labor and delivery should go
  • Becomes enraged or panicky when something about the plan has to change

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for PTSD aims to activate and correct information by prolonged exposure to traumatic stimuli and to restructure incorrect cognitions. CBT approaches to PTSD include exposure therapy, cognitive therapy, cognitive processing, stress inoculation training, assertiveness training, systematic desensitization, biofeedback, and relaxation training. Of these, exposure therapy has been studied the most systematically and found to work especially well for female rape victims. 16 Exposure therapy consists of confronting feared stimuli—such as returning to the scene of a rape or recalling detailed memories of childhood sexual abuse—until anxiety diminishes.

Psychodynamic therapy aims to re-engage normal adaptive mechanisms by introducing the unconscious into consciousness in tolerable doses. 17 Therapy serves as a means of processing traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse, and exploring the psychological meanings of traumas. 18 Few well-controlled studies have examined psychodynamic therapy in PTSD, in part because of the difficulty in operationally defining and assessing mechanisms of change. However, at least one relatively controlled study found reduced avoidance symptoms with psychodynamic therapy, compared with wait list and active treatment groups. 19

EMDR. During eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), the patient focuses on a disturbing image, a negative cognition, and somatic sensations associated with the trauma while tracking the movement of the clinician’s finger within her visual field. 20 The procedure is repeated until the patient’s distress is reduced and she develops more adaptive thoughts about the trauma.

Most EMDR practitioners recommend its use primarily for single-event traumas, such as rape or traumatic labor and delivery. Meta-analyses have suggested that EMDR may be as effective as other exposure therapy, 21 although methodologic problems in several studies limit our ability to determine EMDR’s efficacy in treating women with PTSD. 22

Treating and preventing perinatal PTSD

Historically, common outcomes of giving birth included death or chronic disability. Despite advances in obstetric care, labor and delivery remains painful, frightening, and potentially dangerous. Although childbirth is a normative experience for many women, an estimated 2.8 to 5.6% of new mothers develop labor-related PTSD. 23-25 Risk of PTSD is increased in women with:

  • high general anxiety levels prior to labor
  • a history of mental illness
  • unplanned pregnancy
  • absence of partner during labor and delivery
  • the perception that obstetric staff is unsupportive or ineffective
  • a need for obstetric interventions, including episiotomy, emergency cesarean section, or use of forceps
  • a perception of lack of control.

Table 3


  • Limit obstetric examinations; prepare the woman for necessary examinations
  • Obtain explicit permission to touch the woman
  • Ensure privacy
  • Explain sensations; help the woman visualize what is happening to her body
  • Involve the woman in decisions whenever feasible
  • Keep the woman moving to minimize dissociation
  • For flashbacks, reframe violent or frightening images into soothing ones

Untreated PTSD may impair the woman’s functional ability and compromise her relationship with the infant:

Avoidance can extend to subsequent health care (such as not attending the postpartum checkup), sexual relationships, caring for the baby, and future pregnancies. Some women request general anesthesia and cesarean sections for future deliveries.

Arousal may intensify postpartum sleep disturbance and fatigue and may cause a mother to be hypervigilant about her baby.

Flashbacks can influence feelings about the baby, such as when the mother has repeated, vivid memories of the newborn being limp and blue after delivery, even though the infant is healthy now.

Preventive interventions that can minimize PTSD risk after labor and dshlivery include:

  • explaining to women before the onset of labor that emergency obstetric interventions might be necessary
  • providing adequate social support during labor and delivery
  • ensuring that the obstetric staff communicates clearly with the patient
  • effectively managing pain to minimize trauma.

Postpartum, it is important to screen for PTSD symptoms among high-risk women. Prompt intervention can alleviate symptoms and minimize adverse effects on the family and the mother-infant relationship.

Role of sexual abuse in perinatal PTSD. For a woman who was sexually abused as a child, even an uncomplicated labor and delivery may trigger memories, flashbacks, and emotions associated with the abuse. 26 Physical sensations associated with gynecologic examinations and labor contractions may remind her of abuse-related sensations. Some women with sexual abuse histories react adversely to the loss of control and need to depend on others during labor and delivery.

Unrecognized posttraumatic reactions during labor may result in maladaptive behaviors (Table 2). 26 Obstetric staff who encounter these behaviors without being aware of their origins may think the patient is oppositional or noncompliant and may regard her as an adversary to be defeated or bypassed in order to safely deliver the baby. 27 The psychiatrist can minimize this problem early in labor by alerting the staff to signs of possible sexual abuse-related PTSD. These may include:

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