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WOMEN AND POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

By Susan Lee-Titus
According to reports from the National Center for PTSD and Psychiatric News, women are more likely to develop PTSD than men. Trauma is common in women because five out of ten experience a traumatic event. The most common trauma is sexual assault or child sexual abuse. About 1 in 3 women will experience a sexual assault in their lifetime. Let me put a personal face on these statistics: Mine. I am a rape victim, and I am a survivor of PTSD who can provide a personal perspective on what it is like to navigate the stages of PTSD, and offer tips to sufferers on how to recover.

As a woman raped, beaten and held hostage at gunpoint for two hours in an aerobic dance class, I often experienced flashbacks in which I heard the voice of the rapist when I was at work or washing dishes at home. The flashback is the hallmark of PTSD. It can be audio or visual. Though I couldnít get rid of the voice of the rapist playing like a tape in my head, soldiers returning from war see the roadside bombings over and over again.

To define the condition Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an emotional and psychological reaction to trauma in which a person experiences uncontrollable, frightening audio and visual flashbacks that can overtake him or her during ordinary situations. PTSD is the fourth-ranking psychiatric disorder in the United States.

There are a few reasons why women might get PTSD more often than men: women are more likely to experience sexual assault; sexual assault is more likely to cause PTSD than many other events; women may be more likely to blame themselves for trauma experiences than men.

Some women are at a higher risk for PTSD. Not all women who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD. Women are more likely to develop PTSD if they: have a past mental health problem like anxiety or depression; experienced a very severe or life-threatening trauma; were sexually assaulted; were injured during the event; had a severe reaction at the time of the event; experienced other stressful events afterwards; do not have good social support.

Some PTSD symptoms are more common in women than men. Women are more likely to be anxious or jumpy, 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 have trouble controlling their anger than women. Women may take longer to recover from PTSD and are four times more likely than men to have long-lasting PTSD. Women with PTSD are more likely to have problems with alcohol or drugs. Both women and men who experience PTSD may develop physical health problems.

There are good treatments for PTSD. However, not everyone who experiences a trauma seeks treatment. Women may be more likely than men to seek help after a traumatic event. At least one study found that women respond to treatment as well or better than men. This may be because women are generally more comfortable sharing feelings and talking about personal issues with others than men.

Another important aspect of PTSD is to know your personal triggers. A trigger is a sight, sound, smell, or touch that triggers the rape or trauma experience. It can be a song that you hear on your car radio that reminds you of the trauma. The smell of freshly baked cookies though usually pleasant to most can trigger a PTSD episode if it reminds you of the day of the trauma. The point is you need to figure out your own personal triggers with your therapist. Try to avoid them, and if one comes up unexpectedly, recognize it for what it is, get yourself to a place where you feel safe and have a confidante that you can talk with until the episode passes.

What does PTSD look like? The insidious part of this disease is that it canít be seen; but the symptoms are real and the prognosis not always promising. PTSD is the great equalizer; anyone can become a victim. From an aerobic dancer to a corporate woman to a woman in the military, no one is immune. Those who recover are usually those who seek help immediately.

What do these high numbers mean for women on the street? More than ever women must be aware of their surroundings and protect themselves: simple things like having your keys out and ready to get into your car as soon as possible; donít walk alone at night; but if you must, walk only in well lit areas. In todayís economy, violent crime is up eight percent and increasing. Caution is the operative word.

There were six steps that helped me cope with PTSD, which I would like to share with you:

1. If you have never talked about your PTSD experience with anyone you should do so by finding a place in which you feel safe and a person with whom you will feel safe confiding. In that safe place with your confidant at your side, scream, cry and vent as fully as you can, holding nothing back.

2. Seek treatment as soon as possible from a specialist in PTSD such as a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. Only a specialist can help you effectively deal with the symptoms you may be experiencing. In addition to flashbacks, these might include nightmares, depression, insomnia and feelings of hopelessness and social isolation. The specialist may suggest medication that may be helpful. The worst mistake PTSD sufferers can make is trying to go it alone. Attempting to do so may cause you to remain stuck in this nightmare for your entire life. Remember that there is nothing manly about refusing to get help. Soldiers can seek help at Walter Reed Medical Hospital or do a Google search to find a local person who specializes in the disorder. Rape survivors can easily find group sessions or therapists who specialize in sexual assault or abuse.

3. Join a group therapy support group. Your specialist may refer you to such a group that puts you in contact with others who are going through the same process. By listening to their stories and sharing your own you will understand that you are not alone.

4. Look for other ways to let off steam. Exercise, paint, dance or keep a journal of your thoughts. I kept a journal for eight years and eventually turned it into a book. Even if you donít feel like it, make yourself socialize. Go to picnics and family gatherings and try to resume old hobbies. Donít isolate yourself.

5. Put your PTSD into perspective. Even if you take all the steps I have outlined, you may find that you continue to have some episodes of nightmares, anger, fear or depression. But as those symptoms ease, you may be ready to move on to the stage in which you accept that this horrible thing happened to you but does not define your life. You have talked it out, let it out and put it in perspective. You are ready to move on.

6. Volunteer to help others with PTSD. When you have reached the stage of acceptance and forgiveness you may feel ready to help others who are not as far along as yourself in recovering from PTSD. This is the stage I am currently in. I welcome you to join me there.

Susan Lee-Titus understands PTSD intimately. She was brutally raped at gunpoint by two men who burst into her dance studio and for years endured frequent flashbacks of that memory. Susan is an author, speaker, dancer and communications and media specialist. She is the founder of Joy Dancers, a prison outreach program that teaches aerobic dance to female inmates as an outlet for anger and stress. Her new book is ďThe Dancer Returns: From Victim to Victory.Ē

Visit Susan Lee Titus for more information on Susan Lee-Titus, the Joy Dancers and coping with PTSD.