Men may experience more traumatic events than women, but a new study shows women are more likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Researchers say men and women respond to trauma and stress differently, and the criteria used to diagnose PTSD may help explain the higher rates of the disorder among women.

PSTD is an anxiety disorder developed after experiencing a traumatic event. Symptoms may include flashbacks or re-experiencing the trauma, sleep problems, nightmares, panic attacks, and depression.

“Cognitive and emotional responses to traumatic events make a diagnosis of PTSD more likely,” write researchers David Tolin, PhD, of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, and Edna Foa, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, in Psychological Bulletin.

“So even though men may experience more traumas, they don’t seem to have the same emotional responses to traumatic events,” the researchers say.

In contrast, men are less likely to experience anxiety or depression but more likely to report behavior or drug problems after trauma, they say. Men are also more likely to become irritable, angry, or violent after experiencing a traumatic event.

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PTSD More Common in Women

For their study, the researchers reviewed 290 studies conducted between 1980 and 2005 to determine who is more at risk for potentially traumatic events and PTSD -- men or women.

The results showed men have a higher risk of experiencing traumatic events.

But women have higher rates of the disorder.

Specifically, the researchers found women are more likely to have experienced sexual assault and child sexual abuse, but less likely to have experienced accidents, nonsexual assaults, disaster or fire, combat or war, or to witness death or injury.

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Multiple Traumas May Play Role

The researchers say the results suggest sexual trauma may cause more emotional suffering and be more likely to cause posttraumatic stress disorder than other types of trauma.

But this only partially explains women’s higher PTSD rates.

The study showed women still had higher PTSD rates than men when both sexes were compared on the same type of trauma. For example, female survivors of motor vehicle accidents were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD than male survivors.

Instead, researchers say experiencing more than one type of trauma may make women more prone to PTSD than men.

“The data suggest that the female victims will have brought to the table a much greater risk of abuse and sexual assault prior to the accident; this could place them at higher risk of developing PTSD after the accident even though the current accident may not have caused all the symptoms,” Tolin says in a news release.

Researchers say understanding that responses to trauma vary by gender as well as by individual should help experts develop better tools for diagnosing posttraumatic stress disorder in both men and women.

“Simple checklists or short interviews are insufficient for assessing trauma, and this is what is used most in these types of situations,” they say.

“More thorough assessments are needed to know if someone will suffer long-lasting symptoms from an accident, attack, or disaster,” write the researchers.

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SOURCE: Tolin, D. Psychological Bulletin, November 2006; vol 132: pp 959-992. News release, American Psychological Association.