Most people have heard about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but little is known about acute stress disorder (ASD). It is more immediate and affects twice as many people as PTSD. According to the American Institute of Stress, up to 20% of people exposed to traumatic experiences develop ASD. The good news is that early diagnosis and treatment can help you and your loved ones overcome acute stress disorder. Keep reading to find out everything there is to know about this mental health condition.
What Is Acute Stress Disorder?
Acute stress disorder refers to a dysfunctional and intense reaction after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. Such experiences are often terrifying and/or or life-threatening. Common examples of traumatic experiences include car accidents, assault, and mass shootings.
The symptoms of acute stress disorder develop immediately and last for three days to four weeks. If the symptoms persist for more than a month, then you are officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Any person, regardless of age or gender, can develop acute stress disorder. The difference is how severe the threat is perceived. Some people are better at coping with trauma than others. For instance, children can get traumatized easily compared to adults. According to research by the Department of Veteran Affairs, women are affected by trauma more than men. Below are some of the everyday situations that can lead to acute stress disorder:
- Natural disasters like earthquakes, storms, and floods
- Surviving a severe accident
- Being the victim of sexual or physical assault
- Receiving a bad medical report like a life-threatening disease
- Sudden loss of a loved one
- A terrorist attack
- Facing a crisis, such as a challenge like losing your job
Anyone can develop acute stress disorder after a traumatic experience. However, some people are at a greater risk than others. The following are some of the risk factors for ASD:
- A previous traumatic experience: People who have been in life-threatening experiences before are at higher risk of developing ASD and other stress disorders. The new trauma only worsens the previous one.
- Substance use: The use of drugs like alcohol hampers a person’s ability to think clearly and cope with the traumatic experience. They are likely to overreact or magnify a problem.
- History of abuse: Those who have been abused before tend to be more susceptible to stress disorders. Physical wounds heal, but the mental and emotional scars remain for a long time. History of abuse is an example of previous trauma.
- No social support: Whenever you have been in a traumatic experience, it helps to talk to someone about it. It could be a friend or family member. Unfortunately, if you lack social support, it might worsen the condition. You can also talk to a professional or join a support group.
- Other stresses: Life can be stressful; unfortunately, traumatic experiences have the worst timing. You may already be dealing with so much, such as pressure at work or illness. When you add a traumatic experience like an accident to the mix, even the strongest can break.
How Acute Stress Disorder Affects Your Brain
Acute stress disorder results from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic experience. Trauma has two definitions. Medical trauma refers to critical physical injury or shock. On the other hand, psychiatric trauma refers to any experience that is emotionally distressing or painful. Both types of trauma affect the severity of acute stress disorder. For example, someone who is injured in an accident is more likely to experience ASD than one who only witnessed the accident but never got hurt.
Studies have shown that exposure to trauma alters the functioning of your brain. In particular, it affects the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for a fight or flight response. It is also the part that stores threat-related memories. The prefrontal cortex is the part that regulates emotional response. It analyzes situations and determines the appropriate reaction.
The PFC, in a sense, calms down the amygdala. However, after a traumatic experience, the amygdala becomes overactive while the PFC is less activated. Without the control of the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala releases adrenaline, leading to hypervigilance. Anything that remotely resembles the original traumatic experience becomes a trigger. It makes you alert, edgy, and impulsive.
Signs and Symptoms of ASD
People with acute stress disorder exhibit specific symptoms. They can either be physical or psychological.
The release of hormones such as adrenaline often induces physical symptoms. The nervous system becomes hyperactive, causing symptoms, such as:
- Heart pounding
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive sweating
- Stomach and chest pains
Experiencing a traumatic event rewires how your brain responds to danger. It causes the person to behave abnormally. These symptoms are categorized into five groups. They are:
- Intrusion: This symptom happens when the affected person keeps revisiting the traumatic event. It is involuntary and very distressing. Memories come back in dreams or flashbacks.
- Negative mood: A person who has ASD may find it hard to experience positive emotions like happiness and love. Such a person is often sad and moody. It can hurt your relationships and those around you.
- Dissociative: ASD can make you less aware of your environment. It’s like being in a daze all the time. You may feel numb or detached from reality. Other people report feeling like the trauma didn’t happen to them. In extreme cases, the person is unable to remember parts of the traumatic experience. This is known as dissociative amnesia.
- Avoidance: Due to the traumatic event’s distressing nature, people with ASD avoid anything that reminds them of the experience. Such places, people, or objects are triggers that force them to relieve the entire event. It can be anything from a building to a sound.
- Arousal: Due to an overactive amygdala, the person becomes hypervigilant. The brain is always continually scanning the environment for danger. Alertness can cause sleeping difficulties. It can also make it hard to concentrate on anything. The arousal makes the person impulsive and can result in an aggressive response that sometimes gets physical.
Acute Stress Disorder Versus Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder have a lot in common. For instance, both conditions arise from a traumatic experience. However, the two conditions are different. The main difference is the duration of the symptoms. ASD symptoms last for between three days and four weeks. On the other hand, PTSD symptoms can last for years if left untreated.
The other distinction is the onset of the symptoms. ASD typically manifests immediately while PTSD progresses slowly. Lastly, the people with PTSD relive the experience more while ASD is mainly associated with dissociative symptoms. Remember that untreated ASD can progress into PTSD, which is more severe and harder to treat. Get help as soon as possible if you suspect you may have acute stress disorder.
How Is Acute Stress Disorder Diagnosed?
The primary method for diagnosing ASD is by ruling out other mental disorders. It is impossible to self-diagnose since it requires objectivity. If you have been having symptoms for more than three days, consider visiting NFA Behavioral Health for assistance. There is no lab test for most mental health conditions. Our doctors use the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to effectively treat patients.
- Exposure to a Traumatic Event: The doctor will ask you questions about the particulars of the event. This may be uncomfortable for most people as it forces them to relive the event. However, it is vital so that the doctor can understand the nature of the trauma. It’s important to note that the trauma doesn’t have to be first-hand. Sometimes people get ASD from hearing about a traumatic event. Second-hand ASD is common, especially if the trauma happened to someone you know.
- Presenting the Symptoms: Once the details of the event are sorted, the examiner moves to the reason you went for the diagnosis. If you have the symptoms, then it’s likely you have ASD. However, for the test to be conclusive, the person must exhibit nine out of 14 psychological symptoms from any of the groups discussed.
- Duration of the Symptoms: Although symptoms typically manifest within hours after the traumatic experience, diagnosis can only be made after a minimum of three days. This is because, for most people, the disturbance goes away on its own.
- Significant Distress: People react differently to traumatic experiences. Some people have a higher tolerance than others. For you to be diagnosed with ASD, there must be evidence that the symptoms are debilitating, such as you can no longer work or be in social settings. So, feel free to tell the doctor how it has affected your life.
- Ruling Out Other Causes: The last step is eliminating other potential causes. Mental disorders share symptoms. It must be clear that the traumatic experience is the root cause of the symptoms. Other causes that are ruled out include brain injury, substance use, and pre-existing conditions.
Treatment for Acute Stress Disorder
Many people recover from ASD without any treatment. However, others need a little help to get past a traumatic event. If left untreated, the symptoms can progress into PTSD. The good news is that some medications and therapies can help you or your loved one to overcome trauma. The following are some treatment options available at NFA Behavioral Health.
Although there are different psychotherapy options, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven to be the most effective against stress disorders. However, it is most effective when initiated soon after the experience. Cognitive behavioral therapies help the individual adjust and avoid unhelpful thought patterns.
CBT combines both the cognitive and behavioral aspects of your reaction to trauma. The therapist works with you to identify stressful situations in your life and how you perceive them. Once your reactions are broken down, you are taught coping mechanisms. After CBT, the patient can accurately assess the situation and control their reaction to it. A typical session lasts about 90 minutes and is done once a week. It should be over in six weeks.
Psychotherapy remains the recommended treatment option for ASD and other stress disorders. However, medication may be used for the short-term relief of severe symptoms. Antidepressants and sleeping pills can help but should only be used for a limited period. Pain management drugs are used for critical injuries like burn victims. Anticonvulsants can also help manage intrusive symptoms.
There are other alternative treatments that have shown promise in helping people cope with acute stress disorder. To be clear, these are only additional measures and not the primary remedy. These are:
- Mindfulness: This practice equips the affected person to cope with stressful situations in life. Mindfulness uses relaxation techniques, such as meditation, to bring calmness.
- Support systems: Having a healthy support system can speed up the recovery process. Support could be emotional-based, such as encouragement, or material-based, such as shelter and food. Some people find it helpful to talk to others in a similar situation.
- Hypnotherapy: Hypnosis is the practice of using relaxation techniques to put people in a trance-like state. The main goal is usually to help the individual control the state of awareness. It is important to note that it does not work for everyone, but it may help if you are open to it.
Is ASD Preventable?
Traumatic experiences cause both ASD and PTSD. Unfortunately, there is no way to ensure that you never have to go through them. This means that you can’t prevent ASD. However, there are steps you can take to make you less likely to develop ASD. You can get preparation training if your job is high risk. Military personnel, for instance, are prepared in advance. It helps them cope when such a situation happens. As a civilian, you can get a behavior coach to help boost your coping mechanisms.
If you have pre-existing mental disorders, such as depression, then you should seek treatment without delay. One mental disorder can lead to another. Speak to a professional if you notice any of the symptoms of stress disorder.
If you are or a loved one is dealing with ASD, you can take comfort in the fact that 25-50% of ASD cases resolve without treatment. However, it doesn’t mean you should take it lightly. Everybody reacts differently. We recommend getting help within hours of a traumatic experience. Don’t take chances with your mental health. Get help from a professional.