Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event â€” such as a deadly car crash or armed combat â€” is extraordinarily stressful. Even after the event is over and danger is no longer imminent, the emotional distress can be difficult to overcome. In some people, this lingering stress leads to an anxiety disorder called “acute stress disorder.” Research published by the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs indicates that 14 to 33 percent of people who live through a traumatic event develop acute stress disorder (2007).
Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder
A person who has undergone a traumatic event within the past month may have acute stress disorder if he or she displays some of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty focusing
- A distorted perception of reality
- Feelings of anxiety when faced with reminders of the event and active avoidance of any such reminders
- Flashbacks of the event or other means of reliving the event (such as involuntary thoughts or images associated with the event)
- Inability or refusal to recall details of the traumatic event (dissociative amnesia)
- Inability to feel pleasure from previously enjoyed activities
- Lack of emotion
- Reduced awareness of reality and surroundings
- Sense of detachment from surroundings.
Many of these symptoms are known as “dissociative symptoms.” That is, they stem from the patient’s dissociation from consciousness. Flashbacks, a sense of detachment and event amnesia are all examples of dissociative symptoms. Dissociation creates a way for the mind to suppress overwhelming memories.
Acute Stress Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
By definition of the condition, the symptoms of acute stress disorder last from two days up to four weeks after the event that triggered the disorder. If symptoms persist longer than four weeks, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will be considered.
If people with acute stress disorder don’t receive treatment, their condition often develops into PTSD within the first six months following the trauma. Sometimes the term “acute PTSD” is used to describe cases of PTSD in which symptoms have persisted for less than three months but longer than four weeks.
Treatment for Acute Stress Disorder
Starting treatment for acute stress disorder as early as possible is critical for ensuring that symptoms don’t progress beyond the first month following the traumatic trigger. The most effective treatment approach for many patients is cognitive behavioral therapy. Therapy can help patients to deal with their anxiety and change their destructive thinking patterns. Medications, particularly antidepressants, are often prescribed for acute stress disorder.
Demand Media, Inc. (2010). Dissociative symptoms of acute stress disorder. Retrieved July 17, 2010, from http://www.livestrong.com/article/109892-dissociative-symptoms-acute-stress-disorder/.
Depression-guide.com. (n.d.). Acute stress disorder (ASD). Retrieved July 17, 2010, from http://www.depression-guide.com/acute-stress-disorder.htm.
Gibson, L. (2007). Acute stress disorder. Retrieved July 17, 2010, from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/acute-stress-disorder.asp.