Post-traumatic stress disorder can be set off by exposure to violence, natural disasters, car accidents, domestic abuse or sexual assault (the most common type of trauma among women in both civilian and military life). Women are more than twice as likely as men to develop PTSD, according to the “Women, Trauma and PTSD” tip sheet at the website of the VA’s National Center for PTSD, and women are four times as likely to suffer from it long term. While men tend to act out their anger by drinking, abusing drugs and fighting, women drink less and use drugs less often; like Robin Milonas, they tend to squelch their anger and withdraw.
PTSD can remain dormant, only to erupt unexpectedly years later. “Sometimes people manage their symptoms by staying super busy and avoiding thoughts, feelings, reminders of their traumatic experiences,” says Jean Cooney, attending psychologist for the VA’s Women’s Trauma Recovery Program in Menlo Park, California. “Then they’ll have a delayed response, triggered by things like retirement, job loss, divorce, deaths.” The mean age of patients at Menlo Park is 45. “One of the main issues that people struggle with, whether they’re reacting to sexual assault or combat trauma, is feeling as if they have done something wrong,” Cooney adds. “The guilt or shame around that gets people stuck.”
The ancient and alternative remedies Milonas has learned seem to help, and a new, more open-minded Department of Defense is evaluating nonmainstream and Eastern-medicine treatments for PTSD, including Tai Chi, meditation, neurofeedback and yoga. The army has already begun using some of these practices to deprogram returning troops from their warrior mind-set.
Every day the newswires seem to announce some possible new PTSD remedy: Morphine administered immediately after a trauma may prevent its onset; therapy dogs and hot-stone massage may ease symptoms (which, as Cooney notes, may fluctuate over time).
“We try to frame recovery not as a straight line upward but as a jagged one,” she says. “It’s a messy process.”
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of More.