By Debbie Gregory.
Researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs are initiating studies into the complexities of post-traumatic stress disorder and how it differentiates between genders.
According to Dr. Sonja Batten, the V.A.’s Deputy Chief Consultant for Specialty Mental Health, women are twice as likely as men to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. But, she says, “Among recent returnees seeking care at the Veterans Administration, PTSD rates among Veteran men and Veteran women are the same.” Dr. Batten further explains, “Statistics such as these suggest the need to better understand the role of gender in PTSD, particularly as it may impact our Veterans seeking care.”
A recent Veteran Administration study examined how men and women learn to fear. Dr. Sabra Inslicht, who is involved in the study, is a staff psychologist at the San Francisco Medical Center, and also Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Her work on the subject was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.
In her study, Dr. Inslicht and her team of researchers enlisted 18 males and 13 females, all diagnosed with PTSD. Electrodes were attached to the palms of each participant’s hands. The research staff was then able to detect and measure criteria in each subject’s physiological response to visual stimuli of computer-generated images. Following specific generated images, the test subject was issued a minor electrical shock. Eventually, the test subject associated the particular images with a gradual, unpleasant discomfort. “They learned to anticipate the impending shock,” Dr. Inslicht remarked. “They learned the danger cues. We call this ‘fear conditioning.”’
“We discovered that women responded more strongly to the visual cues than men, when they saw a particular image that they knew was going to be followed by an electric shock,” said Dr. Inslicht. “This suggests that women conditioned more robustly than men. In our future work, we’d like to get a better understanding as to why these differences may occur.”
According to Dr. Inslicht, this fight or flight response can sometimes persist, even in non-threatening circumstances. “When you’re unable to turn it off in safe situations, the stress becomes prolonged. This can cause wear and tear on both the mind and the body,” she said. “When this heightened reactivity starts to negatively impact your daily life, we worry about post-traumatic stress.”
Dr. Insicht went on to say, “Fear extinction occurs when you are gradually exposed to the previous learned danger cues, such as crowds, and you gradually learn to realize that the cue will not be followed by a potentially stressful, traumatic event. Since fear-extinction learning is significant for recovery from PTSD, a deeper understanding of this process could alter our strategy for how we treat PTSD in Veteran men and Veteran women.”
Researchers are cognizant that this is a new field of study with much to learn concerning fear and extinction mechanisms and their relationship to PTSD, especially for Veterans.