With women now serving on the front lines like never before in our nation's history, the military faces the new challenge of understanding the toll combat takes on the female psyche. Combat trauma is common in women; five out of ten women experience a traumatic event. Women tend to experience different traumas than men. While both men and women report the same symptoms of PTSD (hyperarousal, reexperiencing, avoidance, and numbing), some symptoms are more common for women or men.
What is the Difference?
Women are more likely to be jumpy, to have more trouble feeling emotions, and to avoid things that remind them of the trauma than men. Men are more likely to feel angry and to have trouble controlling their anger then women. Women with PTSD are more likely to feel depressed and anxious, while men with PTSD are more likely to have problems with alcohol or drugs. Both women and men who experience PTSD may develop physical health problems.
Why do Women Experience PTSD?
Women in the military are at high risk for exposure to traumatic events, especially during times of war. Although men are more likely to experience combat, a growing number of women are now being exposed to combat. Women in the military are at higher risk for exposure to sexual harassment or sexual assault than men. Future studies are needed to better understand the effects of women's exposure to both combat and sexual assault.
Do More Women than Men Experience PTSD?
Women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men (10% for women and 4% for men). There are a few reasons women might get PTSD more than men:
Not all women who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD. Women are more likely to develop PTSD if they:
Women have a unique experience in the workplace, and particularly in military and police settings where they are a distinct minority. Many women experiencing an operational stress injury will be more comfortable participating in a small group if it is a same gender group. The women in this program will have a unique opportunity to share, learn and be understood by other women who likely have had similar experiences. This connection will be a powerful aspect of recovery and will reduce the social isolation of women suffering from an operational stress injury such as depression or PTSD. The support networks established may well last long after the program is over and may be a source of ongoing support and encouragement.
The program will be planned and conducted by female therapists, and will also have female guest speakers.
As we head into the fall season and the leaves begin to change, it provokes feelings of transition and transformation. This is the time of year when we settle in and routines become more established, the kids go back to school and the summer holidays are over. September is a great time to set clear intentions for the rest of the year and adjust parts of ourselves that may have veered off track during the summer months. Each month of the year has a lesson to teach us, and this September we are focusing on resetting our systems and establishing a routine that encourages proper sleep hygiene that sets us up for success for the rest of the year.
Sleep and mental health are closely connected. Not getting enough sleep or having low quality sleep affects your psychological state and mental health, and those with existing mental health problems such as PTSD are more likely to have insomnia and other sleep disorders (Harvard Medical School, 2019).
The first step in improving sleep is to look at removing things that may negatively affect sleep such as caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, food, drugs (talk to your doctor first), blue lights (television/cell phone screens etc.), and taking a look at medical conditions that may cause insomnia. Examples of medical conditions that can contribute to insomnia include nasal/sinus allergies, GI problems (reflux), endocrine problems, arthritis, asthma, neurological conditions, chronic pain, and lower back pain (National Sleep Foundation, 2019).
We always recommend looking for the root cause of what may be causing your insomnia, and the confounding factors such as lifestyle and stress. Typically sleep disturbances are caused by a myriad of things, with the underlying cause being a body and mind that are not in optimal health. Sometimes a lifestyle revamp is needed to truly make a lasting difference in the quality of your sleep and your life.
A few natural methods of treating insomnia and chronic lack of sleep include:
Meditation and Relaxation Techniques
Helpful by promoting slower breathing and reducing stress hormone levels. Meditation is a technique that involves consciously directing one's attention to an object of focus (such as breathing or a sound or word) in order to increase awareness, relax the body, and calm the mind. Some types of meditation include guided meditation, vipassana meditation, yoga nidra, or body scan (Wong, 2019).
It’s no secret being physically tired helps us get a better sleep, most of the time. Pushing yourself to commit to a fitness routine has huge benefits for your sleep, mental health, and physical health. Even going for a 30 minute walk every day counts! Movement is vital in your journey to recovering, studies even show that exercise can treat moderate depression as effectively as an antidepressant medication – without any negative side effects! As one example, a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26% (Robinson, Segal, Smith, 2019).
Using red light and near-infrared technology has also been clinically proven to enhance natural melatonin production, which is preferable to taking a synthetic melatonin hormone but can also be used in conjunction (Joovv). Red light therapy mimics the morning sun/candle flame/moonlight/sunrise and sunset in terms of colour temperature measured in Kelvin (K). Humans aren’t getting enough red light as we spend too much time indoors, which negatively affects our general wellbeing and sleep. In 2014, a study on the cognitive function of people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) found that participants not only significantly improved cognitive function and saw decreased episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they also reported improved sleep (Journal of Neurotrauma, 2014).
Wishing you a restful September!
Dr. Tina Rochford & the team at OSR
Naeser MA, Zafonte R, et al. “Significant improvements in cognitive performance post-transcranial, red/near-infrared light-emitting diode treatments in chronic, mild traumatic brain injury: open-protocol study.” Journal of Neurotrauma. 2014 Jun 1;31(11):1008-17.
PTSD and Somatic Symptoms
Understanding and treating PTSD can often improve the outcome of chronic disease, such as GI tract problems and heart disease. Anxiety is a reaction to stress that has both psychological and physical features. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety, phobias, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD, panic disorder, etc. The feeling is thought to arise in the amygdala, a brain region that governs many intense emotional responses. As neurotransmitters carry the impulse to the sympathetic nervous system, heart and breathing rates increase, muscles tense, and blood flow is diverted from the abdominal organs to the brain. In the short term, anxiety prepares us to confront a crisis by putting the body on alert. But its physical effects can be counterproductive, causing light-headedness, nausea, diarrhea, and frequent urination. And when it persists, anxiety can take a toll on our mental and physical health.
Anxiety often goes unidentified as a source of other disorders such as substance abuse or physical addiction, that can result from attempts to quell anxiety. And it's often overlooked in the myriad symptoms of chronic conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or migraine headache.
Anxiety has been implicated in several chronic physical illnesses, including heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, and gastrointestinal conditions. When people with these disorders have untreated anxiety, the disease itself is more difficult to treat, their physical symptoms often become worse, and in some cases, they die sooner.
Reference: Harvard Health Publishing
At the Operational Stress Recovery Program, we utilize a variety of treatment modalities such as biofeedback/neurofeedback, EMDR, CBT, and somatic therapies to decrease anxiety and the physical manifestation of psychological trauma on the body. Somatic therapy is a form of body-centered therapy that looks at the connection of mind and body and uses both psychotherapy and physical therapies for holistic healing. In addition to talk therapy, somatic therapy uses mind-body exercises and other physical techniques to help release the pent-up tension that is negatively affecting the clients physical and emotional wellbeing. We are continually adapting our somatic program and adding new evidence-based therapies that can be life-changing for veterans and their families dealing with PTSD.