Women and Trauma

Understanding violence and other trauma in the lives of women and girls has largely focused on domestic or intimate partner violence and childhood abuse, while trauma in men has generally been studied in relation to the experience of war. Today, however, the breadth of trauma experienced by women is increasing. In particular, substantial numbers of women are military veterans who are returning with combat exposure, thus broadening the scope of traumatic experiences for women. We study the disabling effects of traumatic experiences by gender across a full spectrum of underlying causes.

Mission

Our Research Core on Women and Trauma studies how experiences of trauma affect physical and mental health in women and men differently. The Core uses this information to understand risk factors for adverse outcomes, and improve prevention and treatment strategies in reducing poor health outcomes. An important part of our Research Core's mission is to use our findings to inform current clinical practice, and, just as importantly, to assure that questions raised by clinical challenges are addressed in research.

Current Research Core Projects

Current Core activities include the analyses of data on trauma occurrence and treatment programs by gender in which three main sources of data are used. These include evaluation data of Trauma Treatment Programs currently underway in Veteran's Administration (VA) hospitals; assessments from trauma and related experiences from large nationally-representative population samples; and data from private insurance claims.

In addition, several of our Women and Trauma Research Core members are engaged in analyses of large survey samples such as data from the National Comorbidity Study and the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol and Related Disorders (NESARC) to examine:

  • gender differences in co-occurrence patterns between PTSD and other psychiatric disorders,
  • the role of alcohol and substances in the self-medication of pain symptoms in traumatized women, and
  • patterns of gambling and problem gambling in traumatized women as compared to men.

Recent Research Core Findings

Our Women and Trauma Core is conducting studies to identify who is most likely to experience trauma, the risk and protective factors associated with poor versus adaptive health outcomes, and the treatment and prevention programs that work. Our ultimate goal is to inform policy regarding how to reduce risk for trauma, and optimize the efficacy and effectiveness of various treatment interventions.

We have shown that:

  • Women age 65+ report significantly fewer experiences of physical assault and sexual assault over their lifetimes, compared to middle-aged and younger women, suggesting that younger cohorts are at greater risk.
  • Age does not modify the association between physical or sexual assault and past-year Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Both are deleterious to women’s health at any age, even years after the initial trauma has occurred.
  • Among women aged 65+, a lifetime history of physical assault, but not sexual assault, was significantly associated with past-year mood and anxiety disorders.
  • Symptoms of PTSD can appear in several ways, including re-experiencing the trauma, avoiding cues or “triggers” associated with the trauma, becoming emotionally numb to the trauma, and becoming easily or overly aroused by cues associated with the trauma.
  • The prevalence of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, a constellation of severe affective and emotional symptoms that occur in the days prior to the onset of a menstrual cycle, is significantly higher among women with lifetime histories of trauma compared to women who had no exposure to trauma over their lifetimes.