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People who experience traumatic experiences that put them at fear for their life or that induce feelings of powerlessness are at risk of 2 primary anxiety disorders:

  1. Acute Stress Disorder
  2. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

People who experience a very frightening or horrible event, such as a rape, or a natural disaster, can shortly thereafter succumb to acute stress disorder; a disorder that can leave people feeling dazed, irritable, guilty and prone to flashback-like nightmares and other symptoms. People who experience acute stress disorder are very likely to also later experience post traumatic stress disorder.

Similar kinds of events cause both conditions, but:

  • Acute stress disorder occurs within a month of a traumatic event and lasts between 2 days and a month – post traumatic stress disorder must last for a month or longer
  • Acute stress disorder produces more “dissociative” symptoms; symptoms like emotional numbness, a sense of diminished personal identity, or a loss of memory.

What Kinds of Events Cause Acute Stress Disorder?

The kinds of events that can produce acute stress disorder:

  1. Threaten to kill or seriously hurt you or someone near you
  2. Produce profound feelings of fear, helplessness and or horror

Rapes, physical assaults, combat, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are examples of the kinds of events or situations that can cause the disorder.

What Are the Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the symptoms needed for a diagnosis of acute stress disorder include:

At least three of the following symptoms that occur during the event or within a month of it:

  1. Feelings of numbness, a reduction in emotional reactions
  2. Feelings of being in a dream or a daze (being absent from the present)
  3. Feeling depersonalized – (experiencing a loss of feelings of personal identity)
  4. Losing touch with reality (feeling like things aren’t quite real)
  5. Losing your memory of one or more aspects of the traumatic event

The experience must also produce at least one symptom from each of the following three symptoms categories:

  1. A desire to avoid remembering the event (avoidance)
  2. Symptoms of hyper vigilance (difficulty sleeping, jumpiness, irritability etc.)
  3. Re-experience symptoms, such as daydreams of the event, flashbacks or nightmares

The experience of symptoms must cause you serious problems and distress in your life, at work, at home or in relationships.

If these symptoms of acute stress disorder last for longer than a month, the diagnosis changes to post traumatic stress disorder.

Who Gets Acute Stress Disorder?

According to an overview of research provided by the VA hospital system:

  • 7% of survivors of a natural disaster studied exhibited symptoms
  • 13% to 21% of people involved in serious car accidents show symptoms
  • 19% of violent assault victims show symptoms
  • 25% of robbery and assault victims show symptoms
  • 33% of survivors of a mass shooting show symptoms

Research has shown that people with past or present mental illness may be at increased risk of acute stress disorder, as are past sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder.

Acute Stress Disorder Treatment

Left untreated, acute stress disorder often progresses to the longer lasting condition, post traumatic stress disorder, but there is some evidence that treatment interventions administered soon after traumatic exposure can help minimize the symptoms of acute traumatic disorder and reduce the likelihood of a progression to post traumatic stress disorder.

Treatment can help you feel better now and can prevent the occurrence of a serious condition down the road.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Numerous research studies have found CBT to be the most effective treatment for the acute stress disorder and some research also indicates that very brief CBT may also prevent the likelihood of later emerging PTSD.
  • EMDR – this therapy, that involves recalling a traumatic situation while following a moving object with both eyes, has been shown effective in reducing stress exposure symptoms. Other exposure type therapist can also sometimes help.
  • Medication – Although no medications are explicitly FDA approved for the treatment of the disorder, SSRIs, which work for PTSD are sometimes prescribed and anecdotally, seem to work to reduce symptoms severity. Anti anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, are also sometimes used, but concerns over their addictive nature limit their usage.

Because acute stress disorder is highly predictive of PTSD, if you find that you’re having a lot of trouble dealing with a recent traumatic event, you should strongly consider talking to a mental health professional about treatment options that can help you feel better, and that can decrease your odds of longer lasting PTSD.

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Page last updated Dec 08, 2015

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