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Acute Stress Disorder

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Trauma touches many lives suddenly and without warning. It wreaks havoc on a person’s well-being and specifically their beliefs about the safety of the world around them. Trauma potentially robs people of their ability to trust the people in their lives.

Trauma is experienced differently depending on the traumatic event. It ranges from natural disasters to more personal violence—an attack on you or your loved ones. Whatever its form, trauma leaves people in a raw and vulnerable place often feeling like the ground has been ripped away from beneath them.

Trauma is not subtle in its aftermath. It affects our brains and our bodies, our beliefs about the world around us, and our behavior. It differs from forms of grief in that some grief, while incredibly difficult, is more natural and may be received by a person with more acceptance.

Trauma is perceived as assaulting; it feels traumatic in every way, affecting a person’s body, mind and soul. Trauma blindsides us as it is experienced suddenly, without preparation. It does not make any sense to our rational brains or to our emotions. You can feel stuck within the traumatic event, unable to move beyond it.

 

What is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder is a mental health disorder that often occurs after a traumatic event.  It causes adverse symptoms to occur for at least three to 30 days after the traumatic event. If left untreated, it can lead to the development of post traumatic stress disorder.

Traumatic events triggering acute stress disorder may include natural disasters, the death of a loved one, a terminal diagnosis, motor vehicle accidents, domestic violence, sexual assault, the threat of death or serious injury, and surviving a traumatic brain injury. Acute stress disorder occurs in 20-50 percent of witnesses or victims of trauma involving interpersonal assault, such as rape or witnessing a shooting. Acute stress disorder occurs in less than 20% following trauma without interpersonal assault, such as motor vehicle accidents and traumatic brain injury.

Traumatic events may be experienced directly or indirectly. Being a witness to a traumatic event and hearing details of a loved one’s death through trauma is traumatic. Trauma is often perceived differently and experienced differently by different people. Often, two people having gone through the same experience will respond to it differently.

 

What are the symptoms of acute stress disorder?

Trauma is not subtle in its aftermath. It affects our brains and our bodies, our beliefs about the world around us..
  • Intense physical or psychological stress when reminded of the event

  • Avoidance of any tangible reminders of the event, such as avoiding similar locations of the event

  • Efforts to avoid memories and thoughts of the event

  • Feeling emotionally numb or disconnected from yourself

  • Recurring memories and dreams of the event; often these experiences make you feel like you are re-living the event

  • Inability to experience positive emotions, and frequent negative moods including unhappiness, irritability or anger

  • Disturbed sleep

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Memory loss of aspects of the event

  • Being out of touch with reality; feeling numb or like you are in a dream

  • Excessive attention to the possibility of danger; being on hyper alert all the time

  • An exaggerated startle response to loud noises or sudden movement

 

Is there a difference between acute stress and PTSD?

Acute stress disorder and post traumatic stress disorder differ from one another, yet they are closely connected. When acute stress disorder is untreated, it may progress into post traumatic stress disorder. In this sense, acute stress disorder is a short-term condition that is experienced relatively immediately after a traumatic event, whereas post traumatic stress disorder continues to be experienced beyond one month after the triggering event.

Acute stress disorder is also different than chronic stress. Acute stress disorder is connected to trauma, whereas chronic stress is about living in a state of high stress and heightened arousal.

 

What is an acute stress reaction?

With emotional support we are all capable of resiliency in the face of trauma...

An acute stress reaction is really just another name for acute stress disorder. An acute stress reaction emphasizes that the individual is undergoing a natural response to trauma. Someone in this place may find themselves reeling from the event, seeking to make sense of what happened. All aspects of one’s being are affected.

Physically, someone experiencing such a reaction may be on alert all the time. Relaxation is unattainable. Sleep is often affected to the point of having nightmares and flashbacks of the event, whether the individual is in an awake or a sleep state. For a person experiencing such a reaction, there is no rest. No matter what they do, it seems that the memories are constantly flooding their consciousness. They are in physical, psychological and emotional distress. Their world has shattered; they no longer feel safe.

 

Do I have Acute Stress Disorder?

If you or your loved one have experienced trauma, and you are suffering from its aftermath, there is support for you. Seeking help while experiencing an acute reaction may help prevent your experience from persisting intensely and becoming post-traumatic stress disorder. With emotional support we are all capable of resiliency in the face of trauma — not for the purpose of diminishing the trauma, but bolstering us to walk through it to the other side, to a place of greater peace and normalcy again, even if it is a new normal.

As often is the case, a combination of supports may be most helpful in supporting someone experiencing an acute stress disorder. These supports include therapeutic support with a trusted mental health professional, medication, and practicing calm in our day to day lives to re-establish a sense of safety and peace through mindfulness or yoga type practices. 

 
 
This is a screening measure to help you determine whether you might have acute stress that needs professional attention. This screening tool is not designed to make a diagnosis of acute stress disorder but to be shared with your primary care physician or mental health professional to inform further conversations about diagnosis and treatment.

This is a screening measure to help you determine whether you might have acute stress that needs professional attention. This screening tool is not designed to make a diagnosis of acute stress disorder but to be shared with your primary care physician or mental health professional to inform further conversations about diagnosis and treatment.

 

Schedule an evaluation at the Right Track Medical Group clinic nearest you.


Acute Stress Disorder Resources

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) guide: Merck Manuals: https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/mental-health-disorders/anxiety-and-stress-related-disorders/acute-stress-disorder-asd?query=acute%20stress%20disorder
Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, NJ, USA is a global healthcare leader working to develop new therapies that treat and prevent disease. Their online database of health topics includes a variety of conditions including those related to mental health. Their guide on Acute Stress Disorder includes information related to diagnosis and treatment.

Acute Stress Disorder: Johns Hopkins Psychiatry Guide: https://www.hopkinsguides.com/hopkins/view/Johns_Hopkins_Psychiatry_Guide/787067/all/Acute_Stress_Disorder
Learn more about statistics related to acute stress disorder, diagnosis and treatment.

Ada, a free smart phone application: https://ada.com/
Provides symptoms assessment and stores healthcare information. Available in the App Store and Google Play.

What is acute stress disorder?: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324354.php
This article details symptoms, causes and treatment of acute stress disorder as well as its relation to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 


By Elizabeth Burton, LPC, EdS, NCC for Right Track Medical Group
This article is provided for information only and is not a substitute for diagnosis or treatment by a mental-health professional.