Acute Stress Reaction

A lot of people are familiar with the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Acute stress disorder is the bodies response immediately following a traumatic event. Although the symptoms are very similar between the two, the major difference is that acute stress disorder can last up to one month in duration following the traumatic event, whereas post-traumatic stress disorder is the long-term aftermath of trauma and can last anywhere from a few months to many years following a traumatic event.  

What are Acute Stress Disorder symptoms?

  •  A Traumatic event, according to the DSM5 is: “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation” or directly experiences or witnessing in person a traumatic event, learning that a traumatic event happened to someone close to you, repeated exposure to traumatic events (most common in first responders)
  • Days following the traumatic event one can experience the following:
    • Intrusive thoughts, memories, or feelings of the traumatic event. 
    • Flashbacks where you feel you are back in the moment the event happened. 
    • Nightmares of the event
    • Depression or mood swings 
    • Not being able to remember certain aspects of the traumatic event. This can sometimes be described as gaps or blank spots in your memory
    • Feeling as though you are not connected to your body- sometimes described as feeling like you are watching a movie of what’s going on around you, but you are not there. 
    • Trying or actual avoidance of people, places, things, thoughts, feelings, conversations, memories, or objects that are associated with the trauma. 
    • Trouble falling or staying asleep. 
    •  Anger outbursts that do not match the situation you are in or being highly irritable for no reason. Your reaction is much greater than a situation calls for. 
    • Difficulty with focus
    • Hypervigilance
      • Hypervigilance is when you feel like you constantly are scanning your surroundings for danger. It can be described as a state of increased awareness of your surroundings or feeling like you are on edge all of the time. Often people will say they always know where all the exits are in the room and what can be used to defend themselves. Another example can be people who feel they need to sit with their backs to the wall, so they are able to see everything happening in the room. 
    • Exaggerated startle response 
what is acute stress disorder

What is the difference between Acute Stress Disorder & Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

As previously mentioned, Acute Stress Disorder occurs almost immediately after a traumatic event and can last for up to thirty days, experiencing the symptoms mentioned above. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs and can be diagnosed at least 30 days after a traumatic event has occurred. PTSD can last anywhere from months to many years, especially if untreated.  Time is the key difference. Those with PTSD can also experience other symptoms such as: an exaggerated ongoing negative belief either about oneself or the world (ie: the world is dangerous), “distorted cognitions” regarding the traumatic event leading to self-blame, persistence negative emotions (depression, fear, guilt, shame), detachment from others, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, and inability to experience happiness or other positive emotions. 

What is the treatment for Acute Stress Disorder?

The treatment for Acute stress disorder may look like that of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is highly recommended to seek out treatment before those 30 days are over to hopefully prevent PTSD from developing. EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy) has specific protocols for recent traumatic events. Brainspotting is another somatic-brain based therapy that can be beneficial following a traumatic event as well. 

Cognitive processing therapy is another treatment method for trauma that includes components of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). Another form of trauma treatment that is evidenced based and relatively newer than others is Accelerated processing therapy. Studies have shown that this can help treatment trauma in less sessions than EMDR and an effective treatment for PTSD. 

Blog Disclaimer – These posts are not meant to treat, diagnose, or serve as a replacement for therapy. If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, please contact your local crisis center or dial 911. Here are more immediate resources as well.

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