When Rebecca Thurston read the accounts of 150 women and girls sexually abused by a Michigan athletic doctor, one of the first things she worried about was their health — not the psychological effect of the abuse, but the long-term physical toll it could take on their bodies.
An epidemiologist, Thurston has spent the past four years studying women who have suffered sexual abuse and harassment. Over time, she discovered, sexual harassment can work like a poison, stiffening women’s blood vessels, worsening blood flow and harming the inner lining of their hearts.
“People need to understand that trauma is not just something that happens in the mind,” said Thurston, who published her cardiovascular findings this winter in the scientific journal Menopause. “It has real implications on the body.”
After being dismissed for decades, denied funding and greeted with skepticism, researchers studying sexual harassment say their field is undergoing a renaissance — injected with newfound energy and relevance amid the growing #MeToo movement.
In particular, recent studies like Thurston’s research on cardiovascular health have begun to quantify the vast toll of harassment, which detractors — often men — have tried to play down for decades.
“The field suddenly feels alive and vibrant,” said Louise Fitzgerald, who pioneered much of the earliest work in the field.
In more than a dozen other studies over the past decade, researchers have documented other physical symptoms caused by sexual harassment, such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems and disrupted sleep.
“People often think of harassment as a single event, but much more commonly, it’s a process that happens over time. You keep going to work day after day while this stuff keeps happening,” said Fitzgerald, who has studied harassment in utility workers, office settings and factories. “It’s that prolonged exposure to stress that turns into a physiological reaction.”
In her most recent work, Thurston and a team of researchers at University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine measured the cardiovascular health of 272 women who also completed detailed surveys about trauma they had experienced in their lifetimes, including car crashes, natural disaster and the death of a child.
Most women, roughly 60 percent, reported experiencing some form of trauma. The most common, reported by 22 percent of the women, was unwanted sexual contact. Roughly 20 percent had experienced sexual harassment, with some overlap between the two groups.
Healthy blood vessels are able to expand and contract to transport the right amount of blood. But women who experienced trauma, Thurston found, had decreased flexibility in their blood vessels. The more trauma each woman experienced, the more impaired their blood vessels were.
This held true even after her team accounted for other factors like diet, exercise, cholesterol, depression and anxiety. “We kept looking at other explanations. Is what we’re seeing due to education, race, ethnicity? There was very clear link to trauma,” Thurston said.
Thurston and others have replicated the cardiovascular findings in three large surveys, including two national studies. She and others are now doing more research to try to pinpoint how and why trauma has this effect.
She suspects sleep may play a pivotal role. In her team’s studies, women who slept more than six hours a night seemed to create a buffer of sorts against the cardiovascular harm of trauma. “We need to help women cope with this trauma and protect their health because this is happening on such a wide scale,” Thurston said.
Read the full story at The Washington Post.