It’s true – the body does keep the score. For women who’ve experienced sexual harassment and assault, the trauma can manifest in physiological symptoms that can have dire consequences – even deadly ones. Specifically, a new study suggests there is a link with such traumatic experiences and high blood pressure.
The women in question in the study — that is, who reported experiencing both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment — had a 21 per cent increased risk of hypertension, and the impact on health doesn’t stop there. Hypertension is a key factor in heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for women both south of the border, causing one in five female deaths each year, as well as in Canada for women over the age of 55.
While statistics show that 44 per cent of women report sexual assault, and up to 80 per cent women report workplace sexual harassment, the link between the trauma and women’s health isn’t widely known, according to the study’s author, Rebecca Lawn.
Worth noting is that women who’ve experienced both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment were at the highest risk of developing hypertension, suggesting that such cumulative trauma has a compounding effect on women’s health.
Details of the study
The latest research, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, examined more than 33,000 female nurses who, in 2008, shared information about their experiences with sexual violence and other trauma.
At that time, the sample – nurses who were mostly white and middle-aged – also answered questions about post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Seven years later, in 2015, researchers followed up with the women, revealing that one in five had now developed high blood pressure, with the women who had experience with both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment being highest risk.
Following this group, women who had noted workplace sexual harassment as their only traumatic experience had a 15 per cent higher risk of developing the disease and, lastly, women who had reported experiencing sexual assault had an 11 per cent higher risk of developing high blood pressure than women who had noted no such history.
Interestingly, this particular study found no link to hypertension with other types of trauma.
The body as record-keeper
This study builds on other similar findings that establish a link between sexual trauma and negative health impacts.
A 2008 study also established impact on women’s health, this time looking at more than a thousand racially diverse and low-income women.
A 2019 study found the impact on heart health was significant enough to put the women at risk for stroke, aneurysms, kidney disease, heart attacks and other forms of heart disease.
In that same study, sleep was also negatively impacted, which we know from prior research also impacts cardiovascular health. Furthermore, the women in the study who reported sexual assault were three times more likely to report depression and twice as likely to have greater anxiety than women without sexual trauma.
In his 2014 work, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. van der Kolk similarly draws a link between experiences with trauma and our health. In his findings, however, trauma caused by childhood neglect, sexual or domestic abuse and war wreaks havoc on our bodies as well.
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What this means for women and healthcare
These cumulative findings suggest that even if the women in question don’t proactively discuss their trauma, their body still registers that something is wrong, over the long-term with potentially deadly consequences.
With the link between hypertension and trauma becoming clearer, perhaps physicians should proactively create space for patients to share their experiences with such violence, also because it can have clear implications on their physical as well as mental health.