Many of us hear the word “trauma” and think of a soldier returning home from war, or a car accident. In reality, trauma is a more common experience than many suspect—indeed, it's been estimated that 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime.
When we think about trauma as discrete events, we are referring to acute (or simple) trauma: a single traumatic event that occurs in someone’s lifetime, like being the victim of a violent crime or a natural disaster. But trauma can take other forms, too.
Picture Ava, a young, attractive woman walking to the store after work to pick up some groceries. Over the course of her short trip, she is approached or greeted by several men in passing. While many interacting with her appear friendly, Ava still feels vigilant as she walks on, feeling slightly on edge and cautious until she gets home and locks the door behind her.
Does this experience sound familiar? If you are a woman, you may have experienced this situation many times in your life—and it could be helpful to consider it in the context of psychological trauma.
Understanding Trauma and Its After-Effects
Let us take a step back and think about what trauma actually means. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a traumatic event involves the threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence. In other words, trauma is defined as any situation in which someone’s health and safety are threatened.
Most people have probably heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which occurs when someone experiences a traumatic event and struggles to psychologically recover from it. This may result in symptoms such as persistent intrusive thoughts, memories, or nightmares about the traumatic event; avoidance of things that remind the individual of the event; and negative emotional changes such as hopelessness or feeling disconnected from loved ones.
It is important to note, however, that not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop sufficient symptoms to warrant a full PTSD diagnosis. There are certain risk factors that make it more likely for an individual to develop PTSD after surviving trauma, including lacking social support, struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, or having experienced trauma before. People in certain social identity groups are more likely to develop PTSD—including women, who are about twice as likely to develop PTSD as men.
What types of trauma do women typically experience? Global estimates by the World Health Organization suggest that 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, usually by an intimate partner. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 5 women has survived a rape or attempted rape. Women are also more likely than men to be survivors of child sexual abuse, where 1 in 4 girls experience this form of abuse during childhood. Sexual abuse is the most common form of trauma for women.
A national survey found that an alarming 68 percent of women reported having been harassed in public by strangers, which can include catcalling (offensive or sexual comments), inappropriate verbal gestures or whistling, gawking, indecent exposure, or stalking. Frequently experiencing such behaviors can lead many women to feel unsafe in public spaces.
Why Public Harassment Can Trigger Symptoms of Trauma
Feeling harassed in the street can be and often is unsettling, even if the interaction ends at an offensive remark. But for many women, their feeling of unsafety may be due, in part, to the ubiquity of occurrences where women are attacked or even killed for ignoring catcalls from strangers. In other words, the trauma of some can potentially become the trauma of many.
What has been termed "vicarious trauma" occurs when someone experiences psychological distress related to trauma that they did not personally experience. This may take the form of witnessing a traumatic event involving a loved one, hearing about traumatic events from others, or even witnessing violence in the news. Even for those women who haven’t experienced violence firsthand, hearing about other women being traumatized, attacked, or killed may lead to a trauma response.
One study examined the role of vicarious trauma among adolescents who indirectly experienced traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks or airplane crashes. Among a sample of over 1,000 adolescents who had explicit knowledge of a traumatic event, 54 percent reported symptoms of PTSD such as recurring and distressing intrusive thoughts or constantly anticipating danger. The results of this study support the emerging evidence that people exposed to a traumatic event, either by being directly involved or indirectly witnessing it, are at risk of developing symptoms of PTSD.
Why It Matters
Returning to Ava’s story: It makes sense that she may feel hypervigilant, anxious, or fearful when navigating the world as a woman, even if she hasn’t experienced a traumatic event herself. Survivors of trauma or vicarious trauma may go on to develop psychological symptoms such as hypervigilance as a way to protect them from future harm. Parallelly, as a woman living in a world where violence against women is so pervasive, these feelings may be adaptive for her survival.
For women readers who resonate with this story: You are not alone and your experience matters. Everyday gender discrimination, sexism, and misogyny can have deleterious effects on women’s mental and physical well-being. It can be traumatic to exist in the world as you are. Sexism and other forms of discrimination can be, quite literally, deadly; the language we use to discuss these issues should accurately reflect their gravity.
Note: This article is cross-posted on my personal blog.