Acute Stress Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

February 1, 2021

ASD, or acute stress disorder, can cause a wide range of psychological symptoms. If left untreated, acute stress disorder can progress into post-traumatic stress disorder. That being said, becoming familiar with risk factors and symptoms of ASD can help you recognize a problem, whether it be within your own life or that of a loved one.

Experiencing trauma can cause a variety of mental health issues to arise, so it never hurts to seek help after trauma even if you do not yet suspect that something is wrong. If you are looking to learn more about acute stress disorder for your own wellbeing or the wellbeing of someone close to you, you are in the right place.  

What is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder is a mental health condition that generally occurs shortly after a traumatic event. Events that can cause ASD include those that are life-threatening, terrifying, or otherwise traumatizing, and these events may be either witnessed or experienced first-hand. Trauma comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and no drastic or life-changing event should be overlooked. 

Acute stress disorder is a temporary condition with symptoms usually lasting anywhere from 3 to 30 days after the initial event. Certain factors may increase the risk of developing acute stress disorder. Knowing these factors may help you recognize your own risk. 

Those with a higher risk of developing ASD are people who have:

  • Experienced, witnessed, or otherwise been confronted with a traumatic event 
  • A history of ASD or PTSD
  • A history of mental health conditions
  • A history of experiencing dissociative symptoms in relation to traumatic events

These are just a few risk factors, and if you believe you may be at higher risk after experiencing something traumatic, consulting a doctor can be beneficial. 

Are Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD Related?

Acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often discussed in combination. This is because, if left untreated or unrecognized, ASD can lead to PTSD, and the two disorders share some symptoms. 

That said, acute stress disorder is still a separate diagnosis, and it differs from PTSD in that the symptoms of ASD are temporary. Symptoms that persist longer than a month are typically re-analyzed and assessed to see if a PTSD diagnosis may be appropriate. 

Symptoms

A wide range of psychological symptoms can be caused by acute stress disorder, and these symptoms fall under 5 main categories. 

  1. Intrusion symptoms: Intrusion symptoms occur when a person is unable to stop having flashbacks of a traumatic event or is constantly overwhelmed by the memories or dreams of the event. 
  2. Negative mood: This kind of symptom includes negative thoughts, sadness, and a generally low or down-in-the-dumps mood. 
  3. Dissociative symptoms: Dissociative symptoms are those that create an altered sense of reality, lack of awareness of your surroundings, and an inability to remember certain parts of the traumatic event. 
  4. Avoidance symptoms: Avoidance symptoms entail avoiding any and all thoughts, feelings, people, places, and any other factors that may be associated with the traumatic event. 
  5. Arousal symptoms: Arousal symptoms are those that leave a person feeling constantly tense or on-guard. These include sleep disturbances, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and either verbal or physical irritability and aggression. These kinds of symptoms may also cause a person to be startled easily.

Additional mental health conditions, specifically anxiety or depression, may also be caused by acute stress disorder. Keeping an eye out for symptoms of these conditions, including excessive worry, fatigue, restlessness, crying, or changes in appetite, can also be helpful in recognizing ASD. 

Diagnosis

Acute stress disorder will be diagnosed by a mental health professional who will ask you a series of questions. 

The general diagnostic criteria for acute stress disorder is as follows:

  • Exposure to a traumatic event. This can include threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation, and may also hold true if a person witnessed such an event or heard that this kind of event happened to a close loved one.
  • Presence of symptoms. A person with acute stress disorder will exhibit at least 9 associated symptoms, and these 9 can fall into any of the 5 symptom categories of ASD.
  • Duration of symptoms. Symptoms of ASD must last for at least 3 days in order for a diagnosis to be in order, and symptoms must manifest between 3 and 30 days after the initial traumatic event. 
  • Significant distress. The symptoms of acute stress disorder are significant enough that they interrupt a person’s daily life and day-to-day routine in some way. Examples of this include impaired work performance or a new inability to participate in social activities. 
  • Other causes have been ruled out. Ruling out other causes for the symptoms someone is experiencing is an important part of making a diagnosis. 

That being said, understanding the diagnostic criteria may lessen stress and anxiety pertaining to the diagnostic process itself. However, you should not attempt to self-diagnose or diagnose someone around you. 

Only a doctor or mental health professional can make this determination.

Treatment Methods

Many people who are ultimately diagnosed with acute stress disorder are actually able to recover without extensive treatment, but help is out there. And leaving this kind of condition untreated or undiagnosed can lead to bigger issues down the road. 

There are several effective treatment methods available that can be very helpful if symptoms are particularly persistent or severe. 

Treatment methods include:

  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is one method of treating acute stress disorder and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is specifically beneficial in this case. This kind of therapy helps those suffering from ASD become more aware of and transform negative thought patterns or behaviors associated with the traumatic event. This in turn helps the recovery process by working to get your thoughts and actions back on a positive track.
  • Medication: In some cases, medication may be recommended to help you manage any symptoms you are experiencing. 
  • Exposure-based therapies: This kind of therapy works to desensitize you to your triggers in order to lessen the associated symptoms. 
  • Psychiatric education: Learning more about your disorder will help you better understand the way your mind is functioning and why, which in turn may help you cope and learn methods of calming your symptoms. 

The long-term outlook for acute stress disorder can be a bright one, and seeking professional help and treatment can largely reduce your risk of developing PTSD. Acute stress disorder cannot be prevented because you cannot predict when or if you fall victim to a traumatic event. However, you can reduce your likelihood of acute stress disorder by seeking professional help following such an event and by seeking support through family, friends, and loved ones. Preparation training can also be beneficial for those whose jobs have the potential to expose them to traumatic events. 

Summary

Acute stress disorder is a mental health condition that arises after a person experiences, witnesses, or is otherwise confronted with a traumatic event. 

The symptoms of acute stress disorder can last anywhere from 3-30 days following the event, and this temporariness of symptoms helps differentiate it from PTSD. However, if left unrecognized or untreated, acute stress disorder can lead to PTSD, so seeking help from a mental health professional is an important step to recovery. 

Symptoms of ASD can include flashbacks or dreams about the event, avoidance of all things that are associated with the trauma, depersonalization or derealization, restlessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. A wide range of symptoms can occur, and showing at least 9 symptoms of ASD can help lead to a diagnosis. 

If you or a loved one are struggling, YANA can help. YANA is an online mental health service that matches you to a doctor who will work with you on a treatment plan tailored to you and your specific needs. Medication can also be prescribed if necessary, and it will get discreetly shipped right to your front door at no additional cost. 

If you are in search of a highly accessible mental health provider that is affordable and convenient, YANA may be right for you. You don’t have to suffer in silence. We are here to help. 

Sources:

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324354#prevention

https://www.healthline.com/health/acute-stress-disorder#prevention

https://ada.com/conditions/acute-stress-disorder/