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Clinical and Research News
Why Are Some Women Better Able to Fend Off PTSD?
Psychiatric News
Volume 44 Number 15 page 31-33

Women have been found to be generally more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than men are.

But "generally" doesn't mean, of course, that this susceptibility applies to every woman. Female police officers have been shown to be just as resistant to PTSD as are male police officers, for example. This finding was reported by Nnamdi Pole, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Smith College, and colleagues in the July 2001 Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.

So if some women are better armored against PTSD than others, why might this be the case? Pole and his colleagues conducted another study to find out. And the answer, they reported in the August Journal of Anxiety Disorders, seems to be that the PTSD-resilient women experience less intense fear, helplessness, and horror when faced with trauma.

In this study, the researchers compared 157 women police officers with 124 civilian women. The subject groups were comparable on age and education, although the officer group had significantly higher income and a greater proportion of ethnic minorities than the civilian one. The researchers had the subjects respond to several questionnaires detailing the most traumatic experience they had endured, how they reacted to it emotionally, whether they experienced dissociation at the time of trauma, how they coped with the trauma, how much social support they had, PTSD symptoms they experienced due to the trauma, and physical symptoms they currently had, such as headaches, pain in the chest or lower back, nausea, or muscle soreness.

The resulting data indicated that the police officers were more likely than the civilian women to have reported physical assault or violence as their worst personal trauma. Nonetheless, they experienced significantly less-severe PTSD symptoms in reaction to their worst personal trauma than did the civilian women.

The researchers then sought an explanation for why the female police officers seemed to be more successful in fending off PTSD. It seems to be because they experienced significantly less emotional distress and significantly less dissociation at the time of trauma than did their civilian counterparts.

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And as Pole and his team stressed in their report, "Our results [also] indirectly imply that differences between men and women in PTSD may result from gender disparities in the intensity of emotions that contribute most to PTSD."

These findings, of course, make one wonder, if civilian women learned how to react less emotionally at the time of a crisis, would they match women police officers in ability to guard against PTSD? While Pole and colleagues acknowledge that this is a possibility, they caution that these women might also rechannel repressed emotions into somatic symptoms.

The reason that Pole and his colleagues are concerned about the emotions being rechanneled is that once they considered differences in the amount of traumatic distress experienced by the police officer group and by the civilian group, they found that the former experienced greater somatization. Also," civilian males have been found to be more likely than civilian females to substitute emotional symptoms with somatic symptoms following a traumatic event," they noted.

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An interesting question raised by this study is why female police officers seem to be more emotionally resilient than female civilians are. Are they inherently tougher or more comfortable with violence and that is why they go into police work, or do they become tough after becoming police? Pole and his colleagues favor the latter explanation. "We think that it is likely that policing experiences played some role in muting peri-traumatic emotions in the female officers. Women are in the minority in virtually all police departments and encounter enormous pressure to conform to male norms.... [Also] females in male-dominated professions tend to develop male values, attitudes, and behaviors over time. Thus, it is likely that female officers would come to resemble their male coworkers in terms of emotional expression even if they began their careers behaving like civilian women."

Finally, as for the implications of the study for psychiatrists, "I hope that our research directs psychiatrists to do a more careful assessment of the quality and magnitude of emotional distress that occurs during a traumatic event," Pole told Psychiatric News. "I believe that these factors are fundamentally more important than gender or even the type of traumatic event."

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

An abstract of "Gender and PTSD: What Can We Learn From Female Police Officers?" can be accessed at<www.sciencedirect.com> by clicking on "J," then "Journal of Anxiety Disorders," then the August issue.

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