What Is Acute Stress Disorder?

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Introduction

In our fast-paced world, stress has become an inevitable part of life. While a moderate amount of stress can be manageable, there are instances when stress becomes overwhelming and can lead to a condition known as Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). In this article, we will delve into what Acute Stress Disorder is, exploring its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment options to help shed light on this often misunderstood condition.

What is acute stress disorder?

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is a short-term psychological condition that may emerge following an individual's exposure to a traumatic incident. It is marked by a variety of troubling symptoms that can have a substantial effect on an individual's everyday functioning.1

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) was introduced as a new diagnostic category in 1994 within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV).2 This inclusion served two key purposes. Firstly, it aimed to offer medical assistance to individuals experiencing acute traumas, even if their insurance coverage did not encompass this early-stage condition. Secondly, there was an aspiration to anticipate the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in individuals who had recently experienced acute traumas, with the goal of initiating timely interventions.3

ASD explains acute stress reactions (ASRs) that persist for a minimum of three days but do not extend beyond four weeks. Conversely, ASRs lasting longer than four weeks can potentially meet the criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The concept of ASD was introduced to provide a framework for understanding ASRs that might have been overlooked or misclassified as adjustment disorders in clinical practice.

What causes acute stress disorder?

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is typically triggered by exposure to one or more traumatic events that evoke intense fear, horror, or a sense of helplessness. These traumatic events can encompass various situations, including:

-   Death: The experience of death, whether it involves someone close or not, can be a traumatic event.

-   Threat of death: Facing a situation where there's a serious threat to one's life or the lives of others can lead to ASD.

-   Threat of serious Injury: Being in a situation where there's a significant risk of severe physical harm to oneself or others can also be a causative factor.

-   Threat to physical integrity: Experiencing or witnessing events that threaten the physical well-being of oneself or others can contribute to ASD.

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is intricately connected to the body's innate stress response, commonly known as the "fight or flight" response. When an individual encounters a traumatic event, the body initiates the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. This physiological reaction is designed to prepare the body to respond to an imminent threat. However, while this response is essential for immediate survival, it can become problematic when it continues to be activated long after the threat has subsided. This prolonged activation of the stress response can contribute to the development of the symptoms characteristic of ASD.5

Who is at risk for acute stress disorder?

ASD can potentially affect anyone who experiences a traumatic event, but certain factors can increase an individual's risk of developing this disorder. These risk factors include:

-   Previous traumatic experience: If you have previously experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with a traumatic event in the past, you may have an increased risk of developing ASD.

-   History of ASD or PTSD: Individuals who have a history of Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are at a higher risk of developing ASD following a new traumatic event.

-   History of mental health issues: If you have a history of certain types of mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders or depression, you may be more vulnerable to ASD when exposed to trauma.

-   History of dissociative symptoms: Individuals who have experienced dissociative symptoms during traumatic events, such as feeling detached from reality or experiencing a sense of unreality, may also be at an increased risk of developing ASD.

It's important to note that while these factors can heighten the risk, the development of ASD is not solely determined by them. Each individual's response to trauma is unique, and not everyone who experiences these risk factors will develop ASD. Additionally, some individuals may develop ASD without any of these specific risk factors.

What are the symptoms of acute stress disorder?

It's essential to differentiate ASD from regular stress or anxiety, as it has its own unique features. The symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) encompass various categories:

Dissociative symptoms

If you have ASD, you may experience three or more of the following dissociative symptoms:

  • Feeling emotionally numb, detached, or unresponsive.

-   A reduced awareness of your surroundings.

-   Derealisation, where your environment appears strange or unreal.

-   Depersonalisation, where your thoughts or emotions don't feel real or seem disconnected from yourself.

-   Dissociative amnesia, where you cannot recall important aspects of the traumatic event.4

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

Individuals with ASD may persistently re-experience the traumatic event in one or more of these ways:

-   Having recurring images, thoughts, nightmares, illusions, or flashbacks related to the traumatic event.

-   Feeling as if you are reliving the traumatic event.

-   Experiencing distress when reminded of the traumatic event.4 

Avoidance

ASD may lead to the avoidance of stimuli that trigger memories or re-experiences of the traumatic event. These stimuli can include people, conversations, places, objects, activities, thoughts, and feelings.4

Anxiety or increased arousal

Anxiety and heightened arousal are common symptoms of ASD, which can manifest as:

-   Difficulty sleeping.

-   Irritability.

-   Trouble concentrating.

-   Restlessness or an inability to remain still.

-   Persistent tension or hypervigilance.

-   Easily becoming startled or anxious, even in situations where it is not warranted.4

Distress

The symptoms of ASD can cause significant distress and disrupt various aspects of a person's life, including social and work settings. This may result in difficulties initiating or completing essential tasks and challenges in communicating about the traumatic event with others.4

Diagnosis of acute stress disorder

Differential diagnosis from other disorders

​​It is crucial to distinguish ASD from other mental health conditions, such as:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): While ASD and PTSD share some similarities, the key difference is the duration of symptoms. If ASD symptoms persist for more than one month, a diagnosis of PTSD may be considered.
  • Major Depressive Disorder (MDD): While both MDD and ASD involve negative mood symptoms, MDD is characterised by persistent depressive symptoms, while ASD is tied to a specific traumatic event.6

​​Treatment and management

Treatment and management of Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) are crucial steps in helping individuals recover from this condition. Various therapeutic approaches are available, and the choice of treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and individual preferences. Here are some common treatment options:

Psychotherapy

-   Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a widely used approach that helps individuals identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviours associated with the traumatic event.

-   Exposure therapy: This therapeutic method involves gradually and safely confronting traumatic memories or situations, aiming to reduce their distressing impact over time.7

Medications

-   Antidepressants: Certain antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may be prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of ASD, especially when there is a significant mood component.

-   Anti-anxiety medications: In some cases, short-term use of anti-anxiety medications may be recommended to provide relief from severe anxiety symptoms.7

Supportive interventions

-   Social support networks: Establishing connections with friends and family members who can offer emotional support and understanding is crucial during the recovery process.

-   Self-care strategies: Engaging in self-care practices, including relaxation techniques, mindfulness, regular physical activity, and a healthy lifestyle, can be beneficial in managing ASD symptoms and promoting overall well-being.

Individuals experiencing ASD should consult with their general practitioner (GP) or mental health professionals to determine the most suitable treatment plan for their specific needs and circumstances. Early intervention and effective management can significantly improve the outcome for those with ASD.7

Prognosis and long-term Effects

The prognosis for individuals with ASD is generally favourable, especially with early intervention. Many people recover from ASD within a few weeks to a few months. However, if left untreated, ASD can lead to long-term consequences, including the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental health conditions.

It's important to note that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop ASD and individual responses to trauma vary widely. Seeking timely treatment can greatly improve the chances of a full recovery.8

Can I prevent ASD?

​​It's unfortunately impossible to completely prevent the occurrence of traumatic situations in life. However, there are proactive steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of developing Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of such events:

-   Early medical treatment: Seeking medical treatment within a few hours of experiencing a traumatic event may decrease the likelihood of developing ASD. Timely intervention and support can help manage immediate distress and reduce the long-term impact of the trauma.

-   Preparation and training: Individuals in high-risk professions, such as military personnel, first responders, or those working in hazardous environments, can benefit from preparation training and counselling. These programs may include:

Preparation training: Simulated exercises or enactments of traumatic events to help individuals become better prepared to handle real-life situations.

Counseling: Providing psychological support and coping mechanisms to strengthen resilience in the face of potential trauma.

While these measures cannot guarantee prevention, they can enhance individuals' readiness to cope with traumatic events and reduce the risk of developing ASD or PTSD if such events occur. Additionally, early intervention and support remain crucial in mitigating the impact of trauma on mental health.9

 Summary

Traumatic events - whether they be experienced first-hand or witnessed - can have a significant impact on a person’s psychological and emotional well-being. 

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is a short-term mental health condition that can develop following exposure to a traumatic event such as the threat of death or serious injury, natural disasters or sexual assault. Symptoms of ASD fall under several broad categories that include dissociation (feeling disconnected from yourself and the world around you), re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoidance, anxiety, and distress. 

ASD is closely related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with the conditions sharing similar symptoms. However, they are distinct diagnoses, differentiated by the onset and duration of symptoms. ASD symptoms emerge in the immediate aftermath of trauma and can last anywhere from days to a month after the event. By comparison, symptoms of PTSD develop later than symptoms of ASD and can take months or years to develop. 

A doctor or mental health professional can diagnose ASD by asking questions about the traumatic event and the individual’s symptoms. They will also look to rule out other possible causes of ASD symptoms, such as other psychiatric disorders, substance use, and underlying medical conditions. Treatment for ASD aims to reduce symptoms, improve coping mechanisms, and prevent the development of PTSD. Common treatment options include cognitive behavioural therapy, medications, and supportive interventions such as social support networks.  

The prognosis for individuals with ASD is generally favourable, especially with early intervention. Many people recover from ASD within a few weeks to a few months, although it is worth remembering that seeking medical care as soon as possible after the event is key.

References

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Urja Malhotra

Master of Science - MS, Global Health, University of Glasgow

Urja is a dedicated Global Health advocate with a passion for Gender and Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WaSH) projects. With a rich background in designing Health & Social Interventions and conducting Qualitative Research, Urja brings a wealth of expertise to her work. Backed by years of experience, she excels in creating captivating content that spreads awareness and drives action, particularly in promoting the "One Health" approach.

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