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
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
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.
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. ▪