What is Acute Stress Disorder?

Following a traumatic event, one may feel a series of intense stressful symptoms that effect the mind, body, and spirit. So, what is acute stress disorder?

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We all get stressed out from time to time. We get in our own head, flustered and frustrated by chaotic events or situations or relationships in our lives. It all becomes too much to handle. However, what happens when that brief overwhelming feeling becomes a consistent, constant drum that never ceases?

This is known as acute stress disorder (ASD). Putting it simply, ASD is a mental illness that causes an unpleasant dysfunctional response to one’s own surroundings and situations following a disturbing or traumatic event. Due to its link to trauma, ASD is often confused and mistakenly diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But ASD and PTSD do have several factors that separate the two from one another. ¹

Through out this article, we’re going to explore ASD and its link stress, trauma, and anxiety. We’ll dive deeper in ASD symptoms and the best approaches for treatment. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

Acute Stress Disorder Symptoms

As we previously stated, ASD is a mental illness that causes those struggling to have a dysfunctional response to a stressful or traumatic event. The symptoms of ASD most commonly develop roughly two to three days following a traumatic event and can persist days to weeks later.

Physical Symptoms

There are physical and psychological symptoms of ASD and they usually are caused by psychological triggers that bring about emotional and biological responses. The physical symptoms are caused by the overly sensitive nervous system and the rush of adrenaline and include:

  • Chest and stomach pains
  • Difficulty or shifts in breathing
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Palpitations

Psychological Symptoms

The other symptoms are psychological and are borne out of the stress from the trauma which has left a lasting impression on the sufferer. More often than not, these are mistaken either with one another or as the underlying condition itself.

The most common psychological symptoms of acute disorder include:

  • Dissociation
  • Emotional and physical distress
  • Avoidance of situations and personal problems
  • Re-experiencing trauma

Let’s discuss these complex psychological symptoms in detail to give some context and help better understand this disorder as a whole.

Dissociative Symptoms

Dissociating occurs when an individual experiences a cut off from reality. There are varying degrees of dissociation and each has different effects on individuals. However, it’s important to understand that any kind of dissociation is a serious symptom and should be monitored and reported to a mental or medical health professional in order to get a proper diagnosis.

Dissociation after a traumatic event is common as its often used as a way to cope with the traumatic event. Yet, it’s a strategy that only brings temporary solutions to what could be a persistent problem. ² Long-term dissociation has been shown to actively harm the healing process and hinder the process of contextualizing and moving on from a stressful event. ³

The typical signs of dissociation that can exacerbate other acute stress disorder are: ⁴

  • Trailing thoughts or a wandering mind
  • Inconsistent connective thoughts and statements (statements and thoughts that make no sense)
  • Inability or unwillingness to be present and remain present during conversations and in moments that might trigger thoughts and emotions tied to the base trauma
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss in some cases
  • Suicidal ideation and in extreme cases, suicidal actions

Re-experiencing Trauma

Re-experiencing a traumatic event is not usually done purposefully, but rather a product of intrusive thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts are any unwanted thought that is brought into our head – usually brought on by stress – and can cause us to remember and, in some cases, re-experience trauma. Thus causing a link between the two.

The fact that intrusive thoughts are, by their nature, invasive, we can find ourselves remembering an experience with such vividness that it can feel as though we are actively re-living it. In turn, we end up re-orienting ourselves to the same trauma over and over again. This is mainly common through dreaming or nightmares immediately following a traumatic event, but it can also occur when trying to actively not think about the event.

Avoidance Symptoms

Avoidance is a common occurrence in those that anyone that struggles with a mental health condition. Avoidance is also a common symptom of ASD as those that suffer from it find themselves trying to ignore, distance, and – in some ways – shield themselves against the trauma and pain they’re experiencing at the time.

Distress Symptoms

Due to ASDs link to trauma, it often produces symptoms of distress. These are more apparent than the other symptoms mentioned above. However, there are some effects of distress that aren’t as visually apparent.

For example, it is common for those experiencing distress to withdraw from outside activities and personal relationships. It’s also common for them to have difficulties in trying to control their emotions and how said emotions are exhibited outwardly. ⁵

Other psychological and emotional sympstoms of distress can include:

  • Rumination of one’s own worth and validation
  • Increased anxiety of situations, people or places
  • Increased risk of self-harm and in extreme cases suicidal ideation and actions
  • Loss in interests, activities and hobbies that once brought excitement and joy
  • Increase in feelings of aggression, depression and hopelessness which can cause conflict with one’s own life and relationships over time.

Other physical symptoms of distress can include: ⁶

  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased risk of using and abusing addictive substances (i.e. alcohol, prescription drugs)
  • Aches and Pains as physical response to emotional stress
  • Increased fatigue, having little to no energy throughout the day
  • Increase in emotional outbursts like crying spells

What Causes Acute Stress Disorder?

The cause of a ASD response is commonly a traumatic event that usually involves a horrible intrusion of the daily norm for the person struggling. Those who experience a traumatic even may find their emotional state shifting quickly. The exact cause of an ASD response usually isn’t pleasant and may involve violence, which can cause a visceral response in the sufferer.

Who’s at Risk of Acute Stress Disorder?

Due to the disorder’s links to trauma and dissociation, the most at risk of getting ASD are those that find themselves victims of violence, physical, and sexual abuse and/or stressful incidents or accidents.

There is also a prevalence of ASD and responses in those that serve on the front lines in their professional lives, which includes members of the military, police, firefighters, members of the medical community who deal in emergency medicine, and social workers.

Acute Stress Disorder Diagnosis

Diagnosing ASD isn’t done with one simple test – it’s actually a battery of assessments, conversations, and observations done by medical and mental health professionals. Usually these assessments occur in a hospital setting directly following the triggering traumatic event.

The most common way for medical professionals to figure out whether or not the patient is suffering from ASD is to give the them a diagnostic questionnaire. A diagnostic questionnaire is usually performed during the initial triage and observation point of a patient. The questionnaire asks about the incident in detail, allowing for the medical or mental health professional to discern how a patient is responding to the event and its aftermath. It also allows for the patient an opportunity to talk about their experience as well as any feelings that aren’t normal for them. ⁷

From this diagnostic questionnaire, a doctor can figure out where their patient falls on the Acute Stress Disorder Scale – a measurement tool for medical and mental health professionals use to gauge what kind of acute stress response their patient is experiencing.

Youth & Acute Stress Disorder

In a study done about ASD in youth victims of abuse and violence, it was found that a ” high internal consistency” of patients struggling from a set of symptoms that align with ASD. ⁸

From this study, we can understand the importance of stress and emotional response screenings for not just adults but also for kids who have unfortunately found themselves witnessing such traumatic incidents. ASD is serious mental health reaction to stress and trauma and it doesn’t discriminate – anyone can get it and everyone can suffer from its repercussions.

Can You Prevent Acute Stress Disorder?

Unfortunately, there is no simple “yes” or “no” answer when it comes to preventing ASD. This condition is much more of a complex psychological and physical response to trauma and triggering circumstances.

Since traumatic events often come suddenly and without our will, it’s very unlikely one can prevent ASD from occurring. However, if ASD does occur, one can seek out treatment and develop coping mechanisms in order to prevent symptoms from intensifying.

Acute Stress Disorder Treatment

Treating ASD means treating the mixture of underlying symptoms and finding a way to try and decontextualize the trauma or the tragedy. This will give the patient a better chance at discovering peace with the circumstance and the ability move on from it. Of course, this isn’t a simple fix and it’s not an easy path to go down.

Trying to pull oneself out of the dark depths of suffering from a tragedy takes a lot of counseling, thought coaching, and – in some cases – medicating. The combination of all three may allow the patient can help ease symptoms and give them the ability to develop coping mechanisms.

Most effective treatments for ASD and advanced stress responses is either behavioral or grounding therapy. These psychotherapies involve the patient going through a set of counseling which focuses on recontextualizing the trauma and finding ways to develop healthy coping techniques when intrusive thoughts or other symptoms appear.

Final Word

We all naturally get stressed out from time to time. However, when one experiences a traumatic event and responds with a relentless stress, that isn’t natural and requires medical assistance.

The importance of getting the proper help, speaking with supportive staff that understand the complexities and complications such a stressful event can create can greatly aid in finding peace and hopefully the proper treatment. There is no shame in speaking out, for asking for help in times of strife and stress. In fact reaching out and finding help could save your life or a life of a loved one going through a stressful situation or a dark time.

Your Questions

Still have questions concerning acute stress disorder?

We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge on this topic to offer – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ US Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for PTSD : “Acute Stress Disorder – What Is It?”

² Washington State University – Mental Health Journal: “Dissociation Information – What is Dissociation?”

³ Victoria State Health Department Australia: Dissociation and Dissociative Disorders – Complications

⁴ Washington State University – Mental Health Journal: Dissociation Information – Signs & Symptoms

⁵ Brock University – Mental Health & Wellbeing: Signs of distress – Physical Symptoms

⁶ Brock University – Mental Health & Wellbeing: Signs of Distress – Psychological & Emotional Symptoms

⁷ American Family Physician Journal: Physicians’ Role in Managing Acute Stress Disorder – Assessing the Patient

⁸ Annals of Emergency Medicine – Volume 38, Issue 4, October 2001, Pages 391-396 via Elsevier’s Science Direct: Emergency department evaluation of acute stress disorder symptoms in violently injured youths

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