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Acute Stress Disorder - Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Published on Jul 15, 2022 and last reviewed on Jan 23, 2023   -  4 min read


Following a traumatic event, an individual develops anxiety symptoms and disorders, which later are known as acute stress disorder (ASD).

Acute Stress Disorder - Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

What Is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder is also known as an acute stress reaction, psychological shock, mental shock, or a shock. Acute stress disorder is a mental health disorder; it is an unpleasant severe chain reaction triggered after an individual goes through a traumatic event. In the weeks following a traumatic event, an individual develops psychological and anxiety symptoms and disorders; the symptoms last for a bare minimum of a month or less. When the symptoms persist for longer than a month, the patient might have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Acute stress disorder is a relatively common condition; occupational exposure to stress and traumatic events makes it difficult to rely on and live a considerably stable life. Reaching out for help is a crucial step for the individual, as troubling symptoms can lead to a more complicated disorder.

What Are the Types of Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder is broadly classified into two types:

1. Sympathetic Acute Stress Disorder -

Sympathetic acute stress disorder is also known as fight or flight response. It is caused by the release of hormones (adrenaline and norepinephrine) into the brain. The hormones adrenaline or norepinephrine are responsible for increasing the pulse and respiratory rate and masking or overcoming the pain. The fight or flight response of an individual allows an enhanced physical output in a distraught time (even though temporarily).

As sympathetic acute stress disorder plays a vital role while stuck in a traumatic event, however, it becomes difficult for the health professional to make a diagnosis at that time as it increases the hormone level and masks up the pain leading to a false diagnosis.

2. Parasympathetic Acute Stress Disorder -

Parasympathetic acute stress disorder is flagged off as the feeling of nausea and unconsciousness (feeling faint). This is a chain reaction triggered by blood (often sight but sometimes smell too). During a stressful event or a traumatic event, the body releases a hormone (acetylcholine). With studies and experiments, it has been proven that sympathetic and parasympathetic reactions work in opposite ways, as it reduces or decreases the heart rate and often leads to temporary loss of consciousness.

What Causes Acute Stress Disorder?

The cause of acute stress disorder lies with the name stress. The prime causative factor of the disorder is stress, but certain other factors can also lead to acute stress disorder to occur; they are:

What Are the Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder?

Symptoms of acute stress disorder involve stress. However, certain other symptoms are also seen in both sympathetic and parasympathetic acute stress disorder. These symptoms are seen precariously in acute stress disorder before it develops into post-traumatic stress disorder. They are:

1. Showcasing problematic behaviors like hopelessness, worthlessness, and worry.

2. Marked hyperarousal behavior such as panic attacks, rage, irritability, and aggression.

3. Difficulty controlling emotions.

4. Numbness in the extremities.

5. Individuals show dissociative symptoms such as derealization disorders, depersonalization

disorder, and amnesia.

6. Sleeping disorders (nightmares, night terrors, sleepwalking, and insomnia).

7. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

8. Substance dependence or misuse (alcohol or drugs).

9. Feeling of detachment from family or surroundings.

10. Recurring images, illusions, and flashbacks of the traumatic event.

11. Individual avoids people, conversations, places, objects, and feelings, reminding them of the

trauma or the said traumatic event.

12. Difficulty concentrating.

13. Feeling of fatigue (due to being on guard or tense).

14. Persistently in a negative mood.

15. A sense of impending doom.

16. Unexpected episodes of outbursts or crying.

17. Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia nervosa, binge eating, and rumination disorder).

18. Unexplained weight loss.

How to Diagnose Someone With Acute Stress Disorder?

A licensed medical health care professional needs to make an official diagnosis of acute stress disorder to help the individual suffering. It is important to rule out other conditions so as to not make a false judgment or a false diagnosis. Conditions to rule out are:

  • Substance abuse or misuse (alcohol or drug).

  • Side effects due to medications.

  • Other mental illnesses or disorders.

  • Underlying medical conditions.

A licensed healthcare provider can diagnose acute stress disorder with the help of a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor. They prepare a questionnaire, asking about the general symptoms and conditions of the patient. The duration of the symptoms is important. If the symptoms are present for a month or less, then it falls under the category of acute stress disorder. However, the duration of symptoms exceeding a month or more falls under the category of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What Is the Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder?

An individual suffering from acute stress disorder should visit a licensed healthcare professional as the severity of the symptoms might increase, leading to a complicated personal and professional life. A healthcare professional might suggest the following treatment options to treat acute stress disorder:

  • Psychiatric evaluation to determine mental stability.

  • In case of self-harming tendencies or behavior, hospitalization is required.

  • Medication in case of severe anxiety (such as antianxiety, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and antidepressants).

  • Therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) help the patients talk about their condition, issues, and traumatic events.


There is no definite way to escape trauma or stress; however, a more productive way to express stress is useful in the long run and helps to reduce the likelihood of developing acute stress disorder. People suffering from acute stress disorder have difficulty in their personal and professional life. In their personal life, they have difficulty maintaining relationships due to persistent anxiety, stress, and sometimes depression. In professional life, individuals have difficulty concentrating and creating a calm, composed demeanor.

Acute stress disorder often develops into post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms worsening and the duration of the symptoms exceeding the one-month mark. Getting suitable treatment for acute stress disorder is crucial as getting an appropriate treatment may prevent the disorder from worsening and developing into post-traumatic stress disorder. Acute stress disorder is a treatable condition when taken proper measures to treat the said disorder.


Frequently Asked Questions


How Is Acute Stress Disorder Different From PTSD?

Acute stress disorder means the initial traumatic manifestations that occur immediately post traumatic events. However, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) arises in the long term after trauma. PTSD can happen after acute stress disorder (ASD) or without it.


What Are the Consequences of Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder can lead to some psychological symptoms like anxiety, low mood, irritation, emotional ups and downs, insomnia or poor sleep, decreased concentration, and desiring loneliness. There may be recurrent dreams or flashbacks also.


Does Acute Stress Disorder Get Treated on Its Own?

Many patients with ASD recover without any medical treatment. However, effective treatment choices are available and may be advised in cases where manifestations are severe or persistent.


What Is the Preferable Treatment for Acute Stress Disorder?

Psychotherapy is usually the preferred treatment for acute stress disorder (ASD), which involves a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) known as trauma-focused CBT. CBT can decrease the chances of further developing PTSD. This treatment can be delivered through the internet, in person, or by phone.


What Are the Risk Factors for Acute Stress Disorder?

The risk factors for ASD are the previous experience of witnessing, having knowledge, or being a part of a traumatic event. In addition, mental health disorders and a history of dissociative reactions to previous traumatic events also increase the risk for acute stress disorder.


What Are the Tests Done for Acute Stress Disorder?

The most commonly used laboratory patterns for ASD are the trier social stress test (TSST) and the cold pressor test (CPT). Their most stressful features are combined to make a simple laboratory stress test capable of extracting strong autonomic and glucocorticoid stress responses.


What Is the Prevalence of Acute Stress Disorder?

The prevalence of ASD after a traumatic event is between 5 to 20 %, depending on the nature and severity of the trauma and the instrument used to recognize the issue.


How Long Does Acute Stress Disorder Last?

ASD is usually seen within one month of a trauma. It lasts from three days to one month. ASD patients experience symptoms similar to those seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients.


What Are the Options to Cure Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder can be cured by the following options:
- Getting active and involved in more physical activity acts as a stress reliever.
- Meditation.
- Laughing more.
- Connecting with family and friends.
- Asserting yourself.
- Try yoga.
- Get enough sleep.
- Keep a journal or a magazine.
- Get musical and learn a new hobby.
- Seek professional counseling.


Is Acute Stress Disorder Considered a Mental Illness?

Acute stress disorder is surely a mental health condition that arises immediately after a traumatic event. It can lead to a range of psychological manifestations, and without recognition or treatment, it can even progress to post-traumatic stress disorder.


What Is the Medical Treatment for Stress Disorders?

The drugs that treat the symptoms of acute stress disorder (ASD), as well as prevent the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and other antidepressants like benzodiazepines, Propranolol, Morphine, and Hydrocortisone.


What Are the Harmful Effects of Acute Stress Disorder on the Body?

An acute stress response activates the autonomic nervous system, due to which the body experiences increased levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones that cause an increased heart rate, fast breathing rate, and higher blood pressure.

Article Resources

Last reviewed at:
23 Jan 2023  -  4 min read




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