What Is Acute Stress Disorder? A Complete Overview

September 2, 2022
Acute stress disorder
What Is Acute Stress Disorder? A Complete Overview

You must have gone through an upsetting or traumatic event in your life. It could be a mishap, a catastrophe, a brutal assault, or the loss of a loved one. While sometimes the human psyche is able to cope with such difficulties, in some cases, it cannot deal with them. And this is why acute stress disorder (ASD) may occur.

Acute stress disorder is a mental condition that can result from a reaction to a stressful incident. In general, it is thought that the risk of acute stress reaction increases with the degree of direct exposure to a traumatic experience.

Most victims and witnesses of traumatic events go through a range of emotions, including shock, rage, anxiety, dread, and sometimes guilt. These reactions are typical and eventually disappear. However, these emotions are very strong and cause problems with daily functioning for someone with ASD. Let’s get a complete overview of the condition below!

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Acute Stress Disorder: Symptoms

The symptoms of acute stress disorder emerge soon after a stressful incident, although they are brief and typically disappear within a few days. Significant issues are brought on by these symptoms in social, professional, and romantic interactions. They may also make it difficult for you to carry out regular activities as usual. The symptoms of ASD are grouped into four categories.

Intrusive Memories Avoidance
  • Recurrent upsetting memories of the trauma.
  • Reliving the upsetting experience as though it is going to happen again.
  • Disturbing nightmares or dreams involving a tragic occurrence.
  • Having severe mental discomfort or adverse physical responses to things that bring back terrible memories.
  • Avoidance of talking or thinking about events.
  • Avoidance of the places, people, or things that remind you of the incident.
Negative Mood & Dissociation Emotional and Physical Reactions
  • Hopelessness
  • Negative thinking about oneself and others.
  • Memory issues, for example, difficulty remembering details of the traumatic event.
  • Lack of interest in daily activities.
  • Feeling emotionally numb and detached from loved ones.
  • Being easily frightened
  • Being constantly alert for danger
  • Having sleep problems
  • Having difficulty in concentration
  • Feeling irritability or anger

Children (6 years or younger) may exhibit the symptoms by reenacting traumatic incidents through play or may see frightening dreams that may or may not include aspects of traumatic occurrence.


Twenty to ninety percent of the general population has one or more extremely stressful situations in their lifetime, according to survey-based studies. Even though many people are exposed, only 1.3 to 11.2 percent of those with acute stress disorder (ASD) experience long-lasting symptoms.

Acute stress disorder symptoms

Acute Stress Disorder Vs. PTSD

An expanded form of ASD is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of these disorders are mostly similar. However, PTSD is distinguished by more advanced signs of distress and trouble adjusting to the fallout from trauma. However, in contrast to cases of acute stress disorder, PTSD symptoms can appear months or even years after the initial traumatic event. ASD may be followed by PTSD, although PTSD can also appear later, even if ASD didn’t exist at first.

The difference between acute stress disorder and PTSD lies in the duration of both disorders. ASD symptoms must persist for 3 days to 28 days to be diagnosed, and PTSD symptoms must have lasted for more than a month to be diagnosed, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5).

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How Is Acute Stress Disorder Diagnosed?

ASD is essentially diagnosed by examining its symptoms fulfilling the DSM diagnostic criteria. A mental health professional uses interviews and standardized scales to confirm the diagnosis and rule out the disease from other psychiatric conditions or a normal reaction to a stressful/traumatic incident.

During an interview, a mental health expert will inquire about the traumatic event and the person’s symptoms. If a person experiences nine or more ASD symptoms within one month of the traumatic event, a medical expert will often diagnose ASD. PTSD may be indicated by symptoms that start to show up later or that last longer than a month.

Following are examples of the scales used to assess the severity and frequency of symptoms of ASD for diagnosis.

  • The National Stressful Events Survey Acute Stress Disorder Short Scale (NSESSS)
  • The acute stress disorder scale (ASDS)
  • The Maastricht Acute Stress Test (MAST)

Causes of ASD

Either personally experiencing a traumatic incident or watching a terrible event might result in acute stress disorder. Examples of such events include:

  • Experiencing a natural disaster
  • Car accident
  • Any near-death experience
  • The sudden death of a loved one
  • Physical or sexual abuse
Acute stress disorder treatment: coping tips

Coping Techniques

The effects of acute stress are brief and can be handled with effective coping strategies. Try following effective management techniques to overcome stress resulting from traumatic incidents.

  • Get social support: Your social network can help you lessen the burden of your traumatic thoughts. Try to discuss your thoughts with someone, as opposed to avoiding them. You are processing your ideas, emotions, and memories in this way. PTSD symptoms can develop as a result of not processing your thoughts.
  • Reduce the amount of news: The repeated airing of news reports on a catastrophe or traumatic incident can exacerbate stress, depression, and anxiety and cause some people to repeatedly experience the event. Spend less time watching or listening to the news, and do more calming things to aid in your recovery and forward motion.
  • Maintain a routine: Try to consume meals at regular intervals and establish a sleep plan. Include one enjoyable or uplifting activity that you may anticipate doing every day or every week in your routine. If you can, incorporate exercise into your everyday regimen as well. A routine will keep you busy and your mind productive throughout the day.
  • Practice deep breathing: It is a practice that allows more air to enter your body and can help you relax, which lowers stress and anxiety. Additionally, it can help you increase your attention span. Instead of taking quick, shallow breaths when you’re agitated or worried, deep breathing includes taking longer, slower breaths from your stomach.

Treatment Options for Acute Stress Disorder

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, treatment for acute stress disorder typically involves the use of medication and psychotherapy.

  1. Therapy: One of the most popular types of psychotherapy for patients with ASD is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Through CBT, patients learn how to manage the aftereffects of the traumatic incident and how to avoid their triggers. Other forms of psychotherapies found to be effective for acute stress include cognitive processing therapy (CPT), and prolonged exposure (PE).
  2. Medications: People who do not respond to therapy and whose symptoms are severe may be treated through medications. However, they are not the first-line treatment approach for ASD. Some of the medications used are:
    • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
    • Antipsychotics
    • Benzodiazepines (generally not recommended)
    • Beta-blockers
    • Low-dose hydrocortisone

Before You Leave

Although acute stress is easily manageable, it can have more serious consequences if it repeatedly occurs or is left untreated. If you believe you have the majority of the symptoms of acute stress disorder and you or your loved one has recently experienced trauma, don’t wait to seek help. Connect with experts at Mango Clinic for appropriate help with your problems.


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