Acute stress disorder is a mental health condition that without treatment, can lead to PTSD. There is a close relationship between acute stress disorder and PTSD, PTSD being the more severe condition that happens when acute stress disorder is untreated. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly 19% of people develop acute stress disorder after they experience a traumatic event.
In this guide, we will review everything you need to know so that you can find acute stress disorder treatment and recovery.
What is acute stress disorder?
Acute stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that sometimes occurs when a person experiences a deeply traumatic event. Some examples of a traumatic event include:
- Witnessing natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, fires, tornados, or earthquakes
- Being physically or sexually assaulted
- Being involved in a car accident
- Experiencing the sudden death of a loved one
- Receiving a life-threatening medical diagnosis
Causes of Acute Stress Disorder
Acute stress disorder can occur to a person of any age, background, gender, or culture. Each person handles situations differently so two people experiencing the exact same situation may react differently.
Causes of acute stress disorder involve a person experiencing a traumatic event that causes them intense fear, horror, or hopelessness.
Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder
Symptoms of acute stress disorder include:
Feelings of Disconnect
- Feeling emotionally unresponsive, numb, or detached from your current state
- Feeling of amnesia related to parts of or the whole of the traumatic event
- Feeling of reduced awareness to your current surroundings
- Feeling that “real life” doesn’t feel real, like a dream
- Feelings that your thoughts or emotions are not your own
Feelings of Reexperiencing the Traumatic Event
- Having recurring thoughts, nightmares, images, illusions, or flashbacks of the traumatic event experienced
- Feeling that you are reliving the traumatic event over and over again
- Feelings of distress when something reminds you of the traumatic event experienced
Avoidance of Factors that Remind You of the Traumatic Event
You may avoid factors that remind you of your traumatic event, such as:
- Certain thoughts
- Places or locations
- Actions or activities
Another symptom of acute stress disorder is feelings of anxiety, which can cause you to:
- Have trouble sleeping
- Have trouble sitting still
- Be on guard constantly
- Be startled easily or at inappropriate or unnecessary times
- Be irritable
- Have difficulty concentrating
Symptoms of acute stress disorder may cause you to feel distressed in important areas of your life, such as at work or socially. You may also feel too irritated to work on / finish necessary tasks at work or home. If you’re experiencing acute stress disorder, you may struggle with or be unable to tell others about your traumatic event.
Risk Factors for Developing Acute Stress Disorder
Anyone can experience acute stress disorder after a traumatic event. Some risk factors that might increase the likelihood of a person developing acute stress disorder include:
- Having experienced a traumatic event in the past
- Having a history of acute stress disorder or PTSD
- Having a history of mental health problems
Diagnosing Acute Stress Disorder According to DSM-5
According to the DSM-5, a diagnosis of acute stress disorder happens when a person meets these criteria (A through E below):
A. Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation in one (or more) of the following ways:
Directly experiencing the traumatic event(s).
Witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others.
Learning that the event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend. Note: In cases of actual or threatened death of a family member or friend, the event(s) must have been violent or accidental.
Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s) (e.g., first responders collecting human remains, police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse).
(Does not apply to exposure through media or pictures unless the exposure to the above is work related)
B. Presence of nine or more of the following symptoms:
- Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event(s)
- Recurrent distressing dreams in which the content and/or effect of the dream are related to the event(s)
- Dissociative reactions (flashbacks) in which the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic event(s) were recurring. (Such reactions may occur on a continuum, with the most extreme expression being a complete loss of awareness of present surroundings
Intense or prolonged psychological distress or marked physiological reactions in response to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event(s)
- Persistent inability to experience positive emotions
- An altered sense of the reality of one’s surroundings or oneself
- Inability to remember an important aspect of the traumatic event(s) (not due to head injury, alcohol, or drugs)
- Efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or closely associated with the traumatic event(s)
- Efforts to avoid external reminders (people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations) that arouse distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or closely associated with the traumatic event(s)
- Sleep disturbance
- Irritable behavior and angry outbursts (with little or no provocation), typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people or objects
- Problems with concentration
- Exaggerated startle response
C. The disturbances last 3 days to 1 month after trauma occurred.
D. The disturbances causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of daily functioning
E. The disturbance(s) is not attributable to substance abuse or another medical condition like a traumatic brain injury. It cannot also be better explained by brief psychotic disorder.
To read more about the official DSM-5 criteria for diagnosing acute stress disorder, visit NCBI here.
Get Acute Stress Disorder Treatment
If you or a loved one are struggling with this condition, there is hope! Search for one of our acute stress disorder treatment mental health professionals here or a PTSD mental health professional here.
You can also take our PTSD quiz.