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Women Returning from War

Women Returning from War

Understanding stress disorders, from symptoms to diagnosis.

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Women represent just over 14 percent of active-duty military, and unlike in the past, they may be involved in conflict operations. When in or near firefight, they are likely to experience a variety of traumatic stressors that can affect them after returning home. In addition to that, women are more vulnerable to military sexual trauma (MST)—some type of sexual assault that can range from unwanted sexual contact to rape.

Although feelings of stress and anxiety are very natural after trauma, many veterans suffer debilitating long-term effects. It's important to understand how you or a loved one is feeling and to know when it's the right time to seek outside help.

The Basics of Post-Traumatic Symptoms

After a traumatic event, people experience a wide range of feelings. Most people experience some symptoms, including: interrupted sleep, thinking about the event frequently and "shaky" feelings. These symptoms typically fall into the normal range of reactions.

However, if you find yourself having difficulty functioning at work, with friends or at home with your family, then you need to consider the possibility of disorders like acute stress disorder (ASD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Also, if you find yourself experiencing symptoms from previously treated problems that you thought had been resolved (like depression or substance use), these disorders may be the reason.

The primary difference between ASD and PTSD is that in ASD the symptoms and functional impairment last less than one month; in PTSD the symptoms and dysfunction persist longer than one month. Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. In fact, only about 10 to 30 percent of people exposed to the same traumatic event are reported to develop it.

When the traumatic event is a natural or man-made disaster affecting an entire community, acute stress and anxiety may take longer than a month to fade. PTSD may not be diagnosed until as many as six months or, in some cases, even a few years, after the disaster.

With support, many women can draw on their own reserves of strength and resilience to cope with post-traumatic stress. For women who develop PTSD, help is available.

Symptoms of PTSD

Women with PTSD experience the following types of symptoms:

* Reexperiencing the traumatic event, through:

  • Unwanted, intrusive memories
  • Dreams or nightmares
  • Flashbacks

* Increased arousal, in the form of:

  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Being easily startled or angered
  • Increased heart rate and breathing
  • Nausea, diarrhea
  • Intense anxiety after experiencing sights, sounds, smells or events that serve as reminders of the trauma, or on anniversaries of the trauma

* Avoidance of feeling or reminders, in the form of:

  • Sadness, depression, feelings of numbness
  • Avoiding everyday things that remind you of what happened
  • Guilt, self-doubt, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Emotional detachment from others

Diagnosing PTSD

See your health care professional and ask for help or for a referral for therapy if:

  • Your stress and anxiety doesn't lift at all and are still just as painful about four weeks after the traumatic event (or six months after a community-wide disaster)
  • You find that your feelings or reactions interfere with your functioning at work (or your ability to look for work), your interactions with friends (or your ability to maintain relationships with friends or community members) or your family life at home.
  • You feel that you must have professional help to cope.
  • You have trouble taking care of yourself.
  • You need to talk to a counselor about your grief.
  • Your grief is still just as painful and hard to cope with about a year afterward.
  • You need alcohol or drugs to get through the days or nights.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

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