What is acute stress disorder?

Mental Health
Acute stress disorder is a mental health condition that can occur immediately after a traumatic event. It can cause a range of psychological symptoms and, without recognition or treatment, it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

There is a close relationship between acute stress disorder (ASD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people develop PTSD after having ASD.

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 19 percent of people will develop ASD after experiencing a traumatic event. Everyone responds to traumatic events differently, but it is important to be aware of the potential physical and psychological effects that can occur afterward.

In this article, we discuss what ASD is and its symptoms and causes. We also cover diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

What is ASD?

acute stress disorder
Experiencing psychological distress, following a traumatic event, is a sign of ASD.

ASD is a relatively new psychological diagnosis. The American Psychiatric Association first introduced it to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders in 1994.

Although it shares many of the same symptoms as PTSD, ASD is a distinct diagnosis.

A person with ASD experiences psychological distress immediately following a traumatic event. Unlike PTSD, ASD is a temporary condition, and symptoms typically persist for at least 3 to 30 days after the traumatic event.

If a person experiences symptoms for longer than a month, a doctor will usually assess them for PTSD.


Symptoms

People who have ASD experience symptoms similar to those of PTSD and other stress disorders.

ASD symptoms fall under five broad categories:

  1. Intrusion symptoms. These occur when a person is unable to stop revisiting a traumatic event through flashbacks, memories, or dreams.
  2. Negative mood. A person may experience negative thoughts, sadness, and low mood.
  3. Dissociative symptoms. These can include an altered sense of reality, a lack of awareness of the surroundings, and an inability to remember parts of the traumatic event.
  4. Avoidance symptoms. People with these symptoms purposefully avoid thoughts, feelings, people, or places that they associate with the traumatic event.
  5. Arousal symptoms. These can include insomnia and other sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, and irritability or aggression, which can be either verbal or physical. The person may also feel tense or on guard and become startled very easily.

People with ASD may develop additional mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • feeling a sense of impending doom
  • excessive worrying
  • difficulty concentrating
  • fatigue
  • restlessness
  • racing thoughts

Symptoms of depression include:

  • persistent feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or numbness
  • fatigue
  • crying unexpectedly
  • loss of interest in activities that were once pleasurable
  • changes in appetite or body weight
  • thoughts of suicide or self-harm


Causes

acute stress disorder death of loved one
Traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one, can cause a person to develop ASD.

People can develop ASD after experiencing one or more traumatic events. A traumatic event can cause significant physical, emotional, or psychological harm.

Among others, possible traumatic events can include:

  • the death of a loved one
  • the threat of death or serious injury
  • natural disasters
  • motor vehicle accidents
  • sexual assault, rape, or domestic abuse
  • receiving a terminal diagnosis
  • surviving a traumatic brain injury


Risk factors

A person can develop ASD at any point in their life. However, some people may have a higher risk of developing this condition.

Factors that can increase an individual’s risk of developing ASD include:

  • previously experiencing, witnessing, or having knowledge of a traumatic event
  • a history of other mental health disorders
  • a history of dissociative reactions to past traumatic events
  • being younger than 40 years old
  • being female

Diagnosis

A doctor or mental health professional can diagnose ASD. They will ask questions about the traumatic event and the person’s symptoms.

A healthcare professional will usually diagnose ASD if a person develops nine or more ASD symptoms within 1 month of the traumatic event. Symptoms that appear after this time frame or persist longer than 1 month may indicate PTSD.

To diagnose ASD, a healthcare professional will also rule out other possible causes, such as:

  • other psychiatric disorders
  • substance use
  • underlying medical conditions


Treatment

acute stress disorder mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness-based techniques can help manage stress and anxiety.

A healthcare professional will work closely with a person to develop a treatment plan that meets their individual needs. Treatment for ASD focuses on reducing symptoms, improving coping mechanisms, and preventing PTSD.

Treatment options for ASD may include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Doctors usually recommend CBT as the first-line treatment for people with ASD. CBT involves working with a trained mental health professional to develop effective coping strategies.
  • Mindfulness. Mindfulness-based interventions teach techniques for managing stress and anxiety. These can include meditation and breathing exercises.
  • Medications. A healthcare professional may prescribe antidepressants or anticonvulsants to help treat a person’s symptoms.

Prevention

It is not always possible to avoid experiencing traumatic events. However, there are ways to reduce the risk of developing ASD afterward.

These can include:

  • consulting a doctor or mental health professional following a traumatic event
  • seeking support from family and friends
  • getting treatment for other mental health disorders
  • working with a behavioral coach to develop effective coping mechanisms
  • getting preparation training if a person’s job involves a high risk of exposure to traumatic events


Summary

ASD is not an uncommon condition, and it can occur after a person experiences a traumatic event. People whose occupation exposes them to traumatic events have a higher risk of developing ASD.

ASD has a close relationship with PTSD and shares many of the same symptoms. However, ASD is a short-term condition that typically resolves within a month, whereas PTSD is a chronic condition. If a person has symptoms of ASD for longer than a month, a doctor may assess the person for PTSD.

Treatment aims to reduce symptoms and help a person develop effective coping strategies. Options include CBT, mindfulness techniques, and medications.

Reaching out to friends, family, and community support groups can also help a person process their feelings and move on with their life following a traumatic event.

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