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How Does PTSD Impact Men?

Along with other symptoms, PTSD in men may cause erectile dysfunction and reduced libido.
Helen Massy
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Helen Massy

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect women and men. Importantly, however, they may experience this condition differently than one other.

PTSD can profoundly affect individuals regardless of gender, but societal expectations, cultural norms and individual coping mechanisms contribute to distinct manifestations of the disorder in men.

Why do men experience PTSD differently from women?

"We know that anyone can suffer from PTSD, but there is a clear gender difference in how common PTSD is in men versus women," said Faisal Tai, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and CEO of PsychPlus in the Houston area.

The lifetime prevalence of trauma exposure is lower in women than men, but women are more likely to experience PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, about 1 in 10 women suffer from PTSD in their lifetime. About half that number of men will experience PTSD, Tai noted.

Men and women encounter different forms of trauma, both within their personal lives and professional environments. For example, women often face a higher prevalence of high-impact trauma, such as sexual trauma, which may occur at a younger age compared to men. The timing of trauma in early life can have a more profound and lasting impact on an individual's well-being.

"There are actually some quite marked differences between men and women as far as PTSD is concerned, mainly in the length of time before treatment," said Terence Watts, a United Kingdom-based psychotherapist, author and founder of The BWRT Institute.

Males usually receive treatment after about 12 months, he continued, while for women it's closer to four years. There might be a number of reasons for this, including the fact that responses are more evident in males than females.

Women's symptoms are more inclined to be dismissed as anxiety or depression, or even menopause, even by themselves.

Other possibilities Watts discussed are that women are:

  1. Less likely to show evident symptoms such as apparently unprovoked violence
  2. More likely to talk to friends and family about their issues and receive more support, meaning they can survive longer without professional help

Researchers suggest men and women may differ in their response to traumatic events due to biological, social or environmental factors, according to Ketan Parmar, M.D., a Mumbai-based psychiatrist and mental health expert at ClinicSpots.

"Biologically, males are more likely to produce higher levels of testosterone following a traumatic event, which can cause greater impulsivity and aggression," he said.

This may lead them to externalize their emotions rather than work to manage them.

Societally, men are expected to hide and suppress their emotions and behave in a more stoic manner following a traumatic event.

"This can lead to men not feeling safe enough to talk about their trauma instead of seeking help or support from others," Parmar said.

These gender differences in emotion regulation have been strongly linked with the risk of developing PTSD. This is almost certainly a facet of evolutionary difference, Watts explained.

"Thousands of years of being the hunter and warrior has resulted in their psychology being problem-focused and distant from emotion," he said.

A lot of the symptoms of PTSD are born out of the increasing inability to cope effectively with even minor problems and the accompanying emotional arousal. Females, on the other hand, were more likely to be nurturers, caring for the young, the sick or injured, and the elderly, and were more emotionally focused and aware. So males with PTSD tend to "go it alone" while females seek the support of their "sisters."

The symptoms of PTSD also tend to differ in men and women.

The physical impact of PTSD on men

Clinical data indicates PTSD and other forms of trauma cause physical damage, including in the brain, Tai said. In addition, physical and emotional trauma damages mental health, often long-term.

"The bottom line is that even though symptoms of PTSD can mimic those of mental illness if left untreated over time, PTSD can also cause serious physical concerns as well," he said.

Men with PTSD experience a wide range of physical symptoms, Parmar said, such as:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Low energy levels
  • Stomach pains

"As the disorder progresses, some males may become more prone to physical illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease," Parmar said.

Watts said there are differences in how men and women experience PTSD symptoms. Women often become constantly fearful, guarded and self-destructive. Whereas males become hypervigilant, isolated and emotionally unstable.

"Both may suffer feelings of overwhelming helplessness and/or shame," he said. "Often, men may not connect their physical symptoms with the traumatic event, believing instead they have an illness or have picked up a bug somewhere."

In addition, studies suggest that men with PTSD are more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction, reduced libido and difficulty achieving orgasm, Parmar said.

"They may also experience issues related to fertility, including low sperm count or decreased sperm motility," he added.

These symptoms can all have a negative effect on their relationships, and as a result, they may begin to suffer from depression or anxiety.

"PTSD may impact a variety of sexual outcomes, including sexual desire, function (e.g., sexual arousal, orgasm), genito-pelvic pain, sexual satisfaction, sexual distress and frequency of sexual activity. Furthermore, sexual difficulties may not remit with PTSD treatment," according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Secondary infertility—that is, somebody who has already fathered children in the past but now no longer can—is much higher in males who have suffered PTSD. That is especially true after long-term trauma, such as in combat situations, Watts said.

"The ratio is around 60 percent as opposed to 20 percent in males who have not suffered PTSD," he added. "In other words, more than half of male sufferers of PTSD will become infertile."

Seeking support and treatment is essential if you suspect you have PTSD.

"The symptoms associated with PTSD can worsen over time if they are left untreated," Tai said.

The risks can include increased suicidal ideation, anger, aggression, loneliness, flashbacks and dissociation.

Watts said that just because someone has stopped discussing their symptoms doesn't mean they are improving. As depression gradually leads to inactivity, the individual may stop talking about their symptoms so others may believe they are gradually getting over it.

"It is not unknown for a noticeable lift in a depressive mood just before a suicide attempt," Watts said. "This rather counterintuitive situation is probably the result of a final decision having been made to end the pain, so the prospect of a life of misery has been removed."

The individual suffering from deep depression may see no point in life, with the prospect of continuing to live leading to deeper despair, whereas the decision to end it triggers a paradoxical lift in their mood.

PTSD treatment and support for men

Please remember there is a lot of support and treatment available for PTSD.

Parmar said professionals should start by communicating to those considering PTSD treatment that a healthy recovery is possible.

"If they are dealing with both PTSD and addiction simultaneously, therapy and rehabilitation can help address and treat both conditions," he said.

When treating a client, it's important to consider all potential factors, such as chemical imbalances in the brain, loss of social support and psychological processing of emotions. Treatment professionals should take a holistic approach to help clients address these factors and begin building a recovery focused on overall wellness, including physical, emotional, and spiritual health and developing a strong support network.

Watts listed the most common treatments for PTSD:

  • CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)
  • EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprogramming)
  • Exposure therapy
  • Medication

"There is no one-size-fits-all method, though many psychologists prefer EMDR to CBT since the results appear to be more permanent," Watts noted.

Watts said support options might depend on the origin of the illness. For example, if it's caused by being in combat situations, there are various organizations in the United Kingdom, such as Help for Heroes. Police Service members have access to police psychologists who will use a variety of techniques.

"But while there is a lot of help for female sufferers of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or rape—which are common causes of PTSD in females—there is very little help for males in the same situation," he said.

The number of males who experience such is probably much higher than generally realized, especially since they are less likely to report it because of shame, no matter how unwarranted it might be.

People who suspect they are suffering from PTSD should immediately see their doctor or another medical professional to get a specific diagnosis, Tai said. At that point, they can make a treatment decision.

Several organizations can help people suffering from PTSD and their loved ones, including:

If you or someone you know needs help, call 800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.