Acute Stress Disorder

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

Acute Stress Disorder

Acute stress disorder is a disorder that a person may develop following a traumatic event. This disorder is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder but does have key differences. Acute stress disorder begins to affect a person within weeks following a traumatic event. The effects of the stress reaction can last between a few days to one month. Acute stress disorder can affect children, adolescents, and adults. It is a temporary condition, but one that can take a toll on an affected person.

The key difference between acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder is the timeline. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can affect a person for months and even years. The symptoms of acute stress disorder will only last up to one month. If a person has symptoms of post-traumatic stress that last more than one month, their condition is diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. If their post-traumatic stress symptoms subside or are resolved with one month, their diagnosis is acute stress disorder.

Symptoms of stress related to the traumatic event must also occur within one month from the traumatic event for the affected person to be diagnosed with acute stress disorder. If symptoms begin after 30 days, they may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Symptoms Of Acute Stress Disorder

The symptoms of acute stress disorder occur in response to trauma. They are uncomfortable and can be scary for affected people, so being aware of possible symptoms is important. Acute stress disorder is treatable and starts with the identification of symptoms in reaction to a traumatic event.

A person with acute stress disorder may experience several of the symptoms listed below. These symptoms will last between 3 days and one month following a traumatic event. The following are symptoms of acute stress disorder:

  • Recurring memories of a traumatic event
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Panic attacks
  • Stress response to triggers
  • Depressed mood
  • Irritability
  • Distractability
  • Dissociation
  • Feeling like you are in a fog
  • Inability to recall memories of a traumatic event
  • Withdrawal from friends and/or family
  • Dissociative amnesia
  • Distressing memories and thoughts
  • Avoidance of triggering people, places, conversations, and situations
  • Sleep issues
  • Insomnia
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Anger outbursts
  • Easily startled

For people with acute stress disorder, these symptoms will impair functioning in different ways. Job and school performance may decline. Relationships may feel strained, or mood fluctuations and loss of interest in activities may occur.

Causes Of Acute Stress Disorder

Acute stress disorder is caused by trauma. Trauma is an intense experience that causes a person to feel unsafe or in distress. It can come from a scary and unexpected isolated event or a train of events or stressors that overwhelm an affected person. A traumatic event is an event that causes a person intense stress and fear. Trauma can be caused by a threat of injury, security, and death.

Trauma can be caused by a number of different situations and is relative to a person’s experience. This means what is traumatic for one person may not be traumatic to another person. The following are examples of what may cause a person trauma:

  • Accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Physical or verbal attacks
  • Public humiliation
  • Threats of harm
  • Difficulty coping with stressful situations
  • Unexpected life challenges that a person is not equipped to cope with
  • A mental health episode
  • The death or injury of a loved one
  • Illness
  • War
  • An act of terrorism
  • Intense or unexpected stress
  • Sexual trauma or assault

Treatment Of Acute Stress Disorder

Not treating a case of acute stress disorder increases the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. Untreated acute stress disorder can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder, which causes more intense and withstanding symptoms. People with post-traumatic stress disorder struggle to cope with their condition. They often develop unhealthy methods to cope, such as avoiding upsetting situations and turning to drugs and alcohol. Because of this, it is important to treat acute stress disorder early.

Treatment for acute stress disorder can be successful and may be able to be completed with short-term intervention. Typically a person with acute stress disorder will seek mental health counseling. In counseling, they receive education about what trauma is and how it affects a person. They will also learn methods to cope with symptoms.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can be especially helpful for acute stress disorder. CBT is a form of therapy that helps people learn how to manage upsetting and distressing thoughts. Trauma-focused CBT can be especially helpful for people with acute stress disorder. Trauma-focused CBT helps people learn how to identify unhealthy thought patterns.

It also helps an affected person modify those patterns so they are not so distressing and take less of a toll on their life. It also helps affected people learn stress management skills. Trauma-focused CBT can be used on children, adolescents, and adults, and can be completed on a short-term treatment plan.

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