After the events of the last year and a half, more of us than ever have begun to understand what trauma feels like and what it does to our brains, bodies and ability to thrive. In fact, researchers recently found that about 30% of COVID-19 survivors, about 20% of healthcare workers and about 10% of the general population have experienced post-traumatic stress symptoms during the pandemic.
There are two main types of post-traumatic stress disorder. The first, PTSD, generally stems from one intense traumatic experience, like a natural disaster, war or car crash. Complex or C-PTSD refers to trauma responses that can be caused by a range of circumstances, including domestic violence, living in extreme poverty or oppression and other types of abuse that build up over time. While both of these forms can impact anyone, experts have recently begun looking at the ways specific groups of people experience their own particular traumas. Racial trauma, a form of race-based stress, refers to the reactions people of color have to racial discrimination, according to a recent special issue by the American Psychological Association. Although similar to C-PTSD, racial trauma is unique in that it’s a response to exposure and re-exposure to racism and other stress related to race.
In 2019, Dr. Valerie Rein, Ph.D., identified a similar type of trauma that primarily affects women: patriarchy stress disorder. PSD refers specifically to the emotional, mental and physical impact of gender inequality, especially as it builds up over time. “The collective intergenerational trauma shows up as an invisible barrier to women’s success, happiness and fulfillment,” says Rein, who introduced the concept in her 2019 book Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Inner Barrier to Women’s Happiness and Fulfillment. Anyone can suffer from it, including nonbinary people and men.
What exactly is Patriarchy Stress Disorder?
“When I say ‘patriarchy,’ I’m not referring to individual men,” says Rein. “I mean a system of inequality and oppression where the power, economic, political and even moral power has belonged to men and excluded women for millennia.”
That system impacts women in very personal and broadly systemic ways. Many women feel unsafe just walking down the street because of the ever-present fear of harassment, or let men speak over them in meetings because they’ve internalized the belief that their own perspectives aren’t as important.
On a societal level, women earn more than 57% of undergraduate degrees and 59% of all master’s degrees, as well as 48.5% of all law degrees and 47.5% of all medical degrees, according to the Center for American Progress. And yet, women make up 45% of law associates but only 22.7% of partners, 40% of all physicians and surgeons but only 16% of permanent medical schools and only 12.5% of chief financial officers in Fortune 500 companies. In government, women represent only 24% of members of Congress, 24% of the House and 23% of the Senate. For women of color, those numbers are even more dismal.
None of this is new; just look at what our mothers and grandmothers went through. Much like C-PTSD, Rein explains that PSD finds its roots in the ways trauma is passed down through generations in our very genes, a phenomenon called epigenetics. In a landmark study, researchers found that if they exposed mice to the scent of cherry blossoms while zapping them with electric shocks and then bred those mice, their offspring also displayed anxiety when they smelled cherry blossoms. That’s because trauma literally changes the physiology of the brain, even across generations, explains Dr. Eugene Lipov, Ph.D., Chief Medical Officer of the Stella Center.
Inherited trauma can deeply affect our lives.
One of the results of this inherited trauma is a fight-or-flight mechanism that’s stuck in hyperdrive and a nervous system that just can’t seem to calm down. Similar to the ways mental health struggles impact how we function, a traumatized brain responds to the world differently. “I refer to PSD as the invisible prison and I call those trauma adaptations prison guards,” Rein says. “They show up in the mind, body and actions.” The way they’re expressed depends on the person. PSD may manifest as imposter syndrome (not feeling good enough for the accolades you’ve earned), hesitance to advocate for yourself at work or in relationships, an inability to trust your own instincts, difficulty unwinding or relaxing, even chronic pain, fatigue, depression and anxiety.
“Those who suffer from PSD struggle to express themselves authentically,” says DeAnna Jordan Crosby, MA, AMFT, LAADC at New Method Wellness. “The oppression they have suffered defies their ability to trust their intuition, making communication with others difficult.” Rein points to a PSD client of hers who was offered a life-changing project during a casual conversation with a man she met at a conference. But because she’d grown so used to sitting on the sidelines, it wasn’t even until after she left the conversation that she was able to process that there was an opportunity on the table.
Because PSD is so buried, Rein explains that many people often find themselves coping with it in counterproductive ways. Addictive or avoidant behaviors, like turning to alcohol, medication or even shopping to turn off your brain instead of going after what you want, spending hours on social media instead of turning in that challenging proposal at work, or just letting little slights slide instead of speaking out can all be deeply rooted trauma responses. “There’s no shame,” Rein adds. “But as we uncover and heal the underlying trauma and shift from unsafe to safe, there’s naturally just less and less need to rely on these things.”
If you have PSD symptoms, these actions can help.
Much like C-PTSD, the first step in addressing PSD is realizing that struggling to thrive in a traumatic situation isn’t a personal failing, but a natural biological response. A woman who’s been living in an abusive relationship might berate herself for staying in that situation for so long, even though it may not have been safe for her to leave any sooner. Similarly, women living under PSD may not go after a well-deserved promotion or shut down in the face of potential confrontation instead of standing up for themselves. “If you can look at it biologically and say hey, my brain is doing too much, then that helps a lot,” Lipov explains.
Many of the interventions that address C-PTSD work for PSD too. Lipov recommends meditation and yoga to dial down that hyped-up feeling, which a 2017 study also supports. While it sounds cliche, “yoga is actually a very powerful physiologic modulator,” Lipov says. When your sympathetic nervous system thinks you’re in danger, it revs up. After you’ve made it to safety and take a deep breath, you’re engaging your diaphragm. That activates the vagal nerve, which in turn, soothes down the sympathetic system. The deep breathing exercises done as part of yoga do the same thing. In addition to yoga and meditation, other trauma response interventions can make a difference.
- Check in with others. Talking to a sister, friend or close colleague about your experiences can help you realize you’re not alone. “The best way to heal ourselves is to help others heal,” Crosby explains. “When we are helping others, especially those who have suffered similar patriarchal oppression, we experience deeper self-awareness.”
- Acknowledge your feelings. Just like any problem, recognizing your PSD coping mechanisms are the first step toward working through them.
- Journal about it. Writing out your feelings get them onto paper where you can see and address them, and can help you get in touch with your own coping responses.
- Sweat it out. A mind that’s focused on movement doesn’t have as much room for rumination. Take a walk in nature, turn on an upbeat playlist and dance around the living room or do some stretches that get you in tune with your body.
- Try therapy. Speaking with a mental health professional who’s trained in trauma-informed therapy can help unpack what’s going on in your body and mind and learn more effective ways of dealing with it. Mental health experts can help you figure out the best path forward for you,
Recognizing how we respond to this intergenerational trauma is the first step toward dismantling it. For example, many women bear a disproportionate mental and emotional load of keeping the household running, even if they split the actual tasks evenly with their male counterparts, explains a paper in the American Sociological Review. But if we acknowledge that inequity, imagine something better and work to change that framework, we can all begin to heal.
“The question that I recommend that we start asking ourselves is: What am I tolerating?” Rein says. “And then, how good can it get?” Once you understand you’re selling yourself short, you can aim higher. Once you know you’re not speaking up, it’s easier to find your voice.
That healing, Rein has found, works best in a group setting. It’s the same reason why bringing a friend to the gym keeps you motivated to finish your set. Creating new thought and behavior patterns takes time and repetition, and accountability from others working on the same thing can make those habits stick.
And just like trauma gets passed down through generations, so does healing from it. “Breaking the cycle of epigenetic trauma is so powerful because history is being changed,” Crosby says. “When one heals and grows through their own trauma, they are helping to heal future generations by changing the encoded DNA.”
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