Acute stress sounds like something you have when you are really worried about a job interview, or about missing your flight. In reality, however, it is more serious than that. Psychologists define acute stress as a mental disorder resulting from previous trauma. Similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder (ASD) was classified as its own separate disorder in 1994, though some experts still claim that ASD is merely a variation on PTSD.
This article will provide an overview of the cause and symptoms of acute stress disorder, the key differences between ASD and PTSD, and the preferred methods of treatment.
Acute Stress Disorder?
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Cause and Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)
Acute stress was essentially created for those that are already exhibiting PTSD like symptoms, so that if severe anxiety is expected the person can control it. If the trauma was severe, it's often a good idea to speak with a professional. You can also consider taking my anxiety test to learn more about your anxiety.
ASD occurs when the person has experienced a trauma. Usually, the person experiences the trauma themselves, like violence or a car accident or rape or war. However, it's possible to merely witness it, and in rare cases, it's possible to experience it simply through your imagination. During or after the traumatic event, the person experiences three or more symptoms specific to ASD:
- Emotional or mental numbness.
- Feeling as though the world around you is "unreal."
- Feeling as though you're outside of yourself.
- Struggling to keep aware of your surroundings.
- Amnesia to the event.
- Experiencing the trauma through flashbacks and images.
- Avoiding anything that resembles the trauma.
- Increased arousal and anxiety, including hypersensitivity to noise, trouble sleeping, heightened startle reflex, and more.
Those with acute stress disorder also seem to show a higher stress baseline, where they are more easily anxious or upset in smaller situations. They are regularly reliving some parts of the event, and in rare cases can picture it happening to them again and again.
How ASD Differs From PTSD
If you know anything about post-traumatic stress disorder, these symptoms sound very familiar. That's because the symptoms are nearly identical. In fact, a diagnosis of ASD becomes a diagnosis of PTSD almost automatically if the symptoms continue for beyond 30 days. ASD was characterized as a disorder because originally PTSD required 30 days or more of suffering, and in hospital settings, many people experience this type of severe stress after experiencing a traumatic event.
ASD can be diagnosed as soon as 2 days of these symptoms are experienced after an event occurs. In some cases, the symptoms may go away on their own, but many do develop into PTSD, and PTSD can last for a long time without help. That's why treating ASD is so important.
It should also be noted that those with ASD also tend to have more severe dissociative symptoms, causing them to be more withdrawn, irritable, detached, and possibly in denial of the event. ASD tends to be incredibly severe, possibly due to the recentness of the event.
How to Treat ASD
Antidepressant medication and/or short-term therapy are common methods of treating ASD. Cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) in particular was found to be effective in preventing ASD from developing into PTSD. In the trials in which CBT was most effective, both exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring were employed.
Exposure therapy involves the controlled exposure of individuals with ASD to stimuli that remind them of past trauma in a controlled and safe environment in order to teach their brains that extreme fear responses are unnecessary. Studies have shown that those that try to avoid the event start to fear it more, which in turn makes it worse. Exposure therapy systematically reduces the triggers of acute stress so that it becomes something the mind doesn't fear.
Cognitive restructuring involves talking with an individual with ASD to discover the negative beliefs and thought patterns that surround the past event and reminders of the past event and teach them to internalize more positive and healthy ones.
Other potential treatments include alternative treatments such as meditation, acupuncture, and self-hypnosis. These types of treatment are not clinically proven or guaranteed to work, but are occasionally suggested by those that want to avoid medication or more intensive options. Ideally, they should be avoided.
You may also want to take my free 7-minute anxiety test now. This test is a great tool for learning more about your anxiety symptoms, what they say about your anxiety, and what you can do to treat it.
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Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Mar 27, 2018.