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What is Acute Stress Disorder?

man sitting bed

Have you ever heard of acute stress disorder? If you have a loved one who has recently experienced a traumatic event such as a car accident, sexual assault, or a school shooting, they may show signs of acute stress reaction.

Keep reading to learn how to identify symptoms of acute stress disorder in your family member and what treatment options are available for alleviating those symptoms.

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), Explained

Throughout the course of a human lifespan, many individuals will encounter potentially life-threatening ordeals, in which their life (or the life of someone they care about) is at risk. However, only a small percentage of individuals actually develop mental illnesses as a result of these situations.

In most cases, an individual’s response to a traumatic event is influenced by a pre-existing mental illness, a previous terrifying experience and its outcome, a previous response to stress or how they or those around them process the event.

In addition, individuals may experience greater residual feelings about a traumatic event when that event was orchestrated at the hand of another person. Greater residual feelings cause a greater susceptibility to developing a disorder. For example, surviving a tornado may not rank as traumatic as being a survivor of a mass murder.

Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD

Acute stress disorder is quite similar to that of post-traumatic stress disorder, except, in order to meet the criteria for the former, symptoms must occur within one month of the traumatic event.

Sufferers of ASD find themselves:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event even when they don’t want to
  • Avoiding thoughts of the event or things that make them remember what happened
  • Feeling hyper-aroused after the event and not being able to sleep or concentrate

Furthermore, while symptoms of ASD and PTSD overlap, ASD symptoms are associated with dissociation. In other words, the sufferer may feel a detachment with his or her body, numbness of emotional response, and reduction in awareness of his surroundings.

How is Acute Stress Disorder Treated?

young man at balcony in depression suffering emotional crisis

Since experiencing some form of distress after an extremely dangerous or life-threatening encounter is a completely normal reaction, most physicians are hesitant to use medications to treat the symptoms of acute stress reaction.

In most cases, these symptoms may dissolve on their own with support from friends and family members, access to spiritual or religious counsel, and precautions in place to minimize exposure to more stress. However, in cases when an individual is deemed dangerous, highly irritable, or psychotic, pharmacological treatment may be necessary.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

For the most part, ASD is treated with greater success outcomes through cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This form of treatment targets the way the individual processes the trauma.

For instance, survivors may feel they were responsible for what happened or that they should have been smart enough or strong enough to save others. Therapists work with patients to acknowledge the irrational aspects of these thoughts and construct healthier ways of viewing the event that do not blame or assign responsibility.

Other treatment options for acute stress disorder include anxiety management groups. Sufferers of ASD may benefit from talking with others who have encountered traumatic events and sharing stress-relief and coping strategies with each other.

If you are worried that your loved one is struggling after a traumatic event, you may need to organize an intervention for acute stress disorder. Untreated cases can develop into PTSD, so early intervention of this condition is critical.


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