What Is Patriarchy Stress Disorder, And How Do You Know If It's Affecting You?

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 

There’s a running monologue whispering in the back of my mind. Maybe it’s whispering in the back of your mind, too. It’s telling me that I’m not doing enough or being enough, despite personal and career successes. Sometimes, it’s whispering that I need to work harder to get where I want to be or that I’m not good enough to be where I am.

My running monologue isn’t unique to me. Countless women across the country — maybe across the globe — experience a similar monologue. It results from a shared trauma, and it’s got a name: Patriarchy Stress Disorder, or PSD.

PSD is a term coined by Dr. Valerie Rein, Ph.D., in her book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Inner Barrier to Women’s Happiness and Fulfillment. Dr. Rein identified PSD when in patient after patient, she noted signs of trauma, even though the patient hadn’t experienced an obvious trauma. When Dr. Rein learned that trauma could be genetically transmitted, the puzzle pieces fell into place.

PSD is the idea that the mental, physical, and emotional impact of gender inequality is a trauma that impacts woman and builds over time, and over generations. That “collective intergenerational trauma shows up as an invisible barrier to women’s success, happiness and fulfillment,” says Dr. Rein.

While women are the focus of Dr. Rein’s work, PSD can impact anyone, including nonbinary people and men. Still, few people have heard of patriarchy stress disorder, and even fewer recognize how it might impact their lives.

Generations Of Feeling Unsafe Under A Patriarchal System

When Dr. Rein speaks about patriarchy, she is not commenting on individual men. Instead, she’s referring to a “system of inequality and oppression where the power, economic, political and even moral power has belonged to men and excluded women for millennia.”

Women have been oppressed by a patriarchal system for thousands of years. Generations of women haven’t felt safe enough to be themselves, live their lives wholly in the way they see fit, to own their own bodies and their own shine.

That oppression results in a trauma that’s passed down through generations. Not just in a metaphorical way, but in a very real, physical way. Trauma changes the physiology of the brain, according to Dr. Dr. Eugene Lipov, Ph.D., Chief Medical Officer of the Stella Center, who spoke to Good Housekeeping. That change is passed down in our genes.

One of the consequences of that is our fight-or-flight response is always on and overactive. According to Dr. Rein, “The fact that our nervous systems constantly signal to us that we’re not safe, is the hidden reason why women hesitate to lean in and play big — and when they do, their health and relationships often take a toll, making it impossible for a high-achieving woman to have it all and thrive.”

Signs You’re Suffering From Patriarchy Stress Disorder

PSD can show up in a variety of surprising, and unsurprising, ways. In a podcast discussion with Kate Hanley, Dr. Rein confirmed that PSD can look like “self-sabotage, holding ourselves back, getting in our own way, fatigue, mental fog, trembles, sleeping, hormonal imbalances, autoimmune conditions.”

Other ways it can manifest include:

  1. Feeling guilty about wanting more — Dr. Rein highlights that historically women have spent their time focused on simply surviving versus thriving. When we switch to thriving, to striving for more than the bare minimum, our bodies respond.
  2. Imposter Syndrome — not feeling good enough for the awards and achievements you’ve earned. This isn’t surprising considering that women have historically been taught that they’re worth less than men, notes Dr. Rein.
  3. An inability to trust your intuition
  4. Feeling unsafe (physically or emotionally) — on her website, Dr. Rein writes that “it’s never been safe to be a woman. Historically, it’s been particularly unsafe to be an outspoken, attractive, successful woman.”
  5. Feeling on edge as you achieve more success — According to Dr. Rein, “The more a woman breaks through the inner and outer glass ceilings and grows in her visibility and success, the more her nervous system drives up its hyper-activation, hyper-vigilance. Our nervous system perceives increased success as increased threat.”

How To Manage PSD Symptoms

Because PSD symptoms are so pervasive and often difficult to spot, many people end up dealing with them in counterproductive ways, notes Dr. Rein. Addictions to alcohol, shopping, medications, or avoidant behaviors, like excessive social media scrolling or failing to speak up, are all ways that folks manage PSD symptoms, often without realizing it.

There are more productive ways to deal with PSD, however. Among them is first recognizing that PSD is a biological response, not a personal failure. Other methods include:

  1. Connecting with others
  2. Recognizing the counterproductive ways you’re dealing with PSD
  3. Journaling
  4. Exercise or movement that gets you out of your head and into your body
  5. Therapy

The world is slowly — too slowly, perhaps — changing, and certainly future generations of women will benefit from the work we do now, both in terms of putting an end to gender inequality and addressing the inherited trauma before we pass it down.

“When one heals and grows through their own trauma, they are helping to heal future generations by changing the encoded DNA,” notes DeAnna Jordan Crosby, MA, AMFT, LAADC at New Method Wellness.

Because, as it turns out, healing is as easily passed down through generations as trauma. And I’d love for a different monologue to whisper in the back of my daughter’s mind. Maybe you would, too.

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