Acute Stress Disorder
Acute Stress Disorder Nov 23, 2023

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is a mental health condition. It can emerge in the aftermath of a traumatic event. It is a common and natural reaction to distressing experiences, such as accidents, assaults, or natural disasters. Unlike post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), ASD is diagnosed when symptoms manifest within three days to four weeks following the traumatic incident.

What is Stress, and What is Acute Stress Disorder?

  • Stress Definition:

Stress is the body’s intricate and dynamic response to demands or challenges, whether real or perceived. It triggers a cascade of physiological, emotional, and cognitive reactions. These reactions prepare an individual to cope with the demands of the situation. These responses can manifest in various ways, including heightened alertness, increased heart rate, muscle tension, emotional arousal, and alterations in thought patterns. Stress is a natural and adaptive aspect of human functioning. It helps individuals navigate and adapt to their environment.

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) Definition:

Acute Stress Disorder is a psychological condition characterized by a specific set of symptoms that emerge in the aftermath of exposure to a traumatic event. As outlined by the DSM-5, the symptoms must persist for a duration of three days to four weeks following the traumatic incident. ASD encompasses a range of distressing experiences. Including intrusive memories, negative mood, dissociation, avoidance, and heightened arousal reactivity. It serves as a diagnostic precursor to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if symptoms persist beyond the specified timeframe.
A Case Study on Acute Stress Disorder: Navigating the Aftermath of a Traumatic Incident

Signs and Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

  • Intrusive Memories: Recurrent and distressing memories, flashbacks, or nightmares related to the traumatic event.
  • Negative Mood: Persistent feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame.
  • Dissociation: Feeling detached from oneself or experiencing a sense of unreality.
  • Avoidance: Actively steering clear of reminders of the trauma.
  • Arousal and Reactivity: Increased irritability, difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, and an exaggerated startle response.

    What Causes Acute Stress Disorder?

1. Traumatic Events:

Traumatic events are distressing occurrences that threaten an individual’s physical or psychological well-being. Examples of traumatic events include:

  • Life-threatening Situations: Being involved in a serious car accident, where there is a risk of severe injury or death.
  • Accidents: Experiencing a workplace accident, such as a fall from a height or an industrial mishap.
  • Physical Assault: Surviving an assault or violent attack, which can lead to both physical and psychological trauma.
  • Natural Disasters: Enduring the impact of natural disasters. Like earthquakes, hurricanes, or floods, where one’s safety and security are compromised.

The intensity of these events can overwhelm an individual’s usual coping mechanisms. It triggers acute stress responses that may evolve into Acute Stress Disorder.

2. Personal Vulnerability:

Individual factors contribute to personal vulnerability. It influences how an individual copes with and responds to traumatic events. Examples include:

  • Previous Traumatic Experiences: Someone who has experienced trauma. Such as childhood abuse or military combat, may be more vulnerable to developing ASD after a traumatic event.
  • Existing Mental Health Conditions: Individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions may be more susceptible to the impact of traumatic events.
  • Lack of Social Support: A limited support network and a lack of close friends or family to provide emotional help can increase vulnerability. Social isolation can exacerbate the impact of trauma.

    Personal vulnerability factors interact with the nature and intensity of the traumatic event, influencing the likelihood of developing Acute Stress Disorder.

3. Intensity and Duration:

The severity of the trauma and the perceived threat play a crucial role in the development of ASD. Examples include:

  • Severe Physical Injury: A traumatic event resulting in severe physical injuries. Such fractures or head injuries can heighten the perceived threat and contribute to the development of ASD.
  • Perceived Threat to Life: Events where there is a clear perception of a life-threatening situation. Such as a near-drowning incident can intensify the stress response.
  • Duration of Exposure: Prolonged exposure to a traumatic event. Such as, being trapped in a collapsed building during an earthquake can increase the likelihood of developing ASD.

Understanding the interplay between the intensity and duration of the trauma provides insights into the risk factors associated with the development of Acute Stress Disorder.

Treatment and Management – Key Points

1. Psychotherapy: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT):

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a utilized psychotherapeutic approach for treating Acute Stress Disorder. In a CBT session, a therapist may work with an individual like Alex to identify and challenge negative thought patterns associated with the traumatic event. For instance, if Alex has developed a persistent fear of driving after a car accident, the therapist might use exposure techniques to desensitize this fear, fostering a shift in thinking and behavior over time.

2. Medication: Anti-anxiety or Antidepressant Medications:

In severe symptoms, medications may be prescribed to reduce acute distress and help engagement in therapy. For instance, a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication like benzodiazepines may help reduce immediate anxiety symptoms. Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may also be prescribed to address mood-related symptoms. These medications aim to provide short-term relief while the individual engages in psychotherapy.

3. Early Intervention: Crisis Intervention and Debriefing:

Early intervention involves providing support and treatment shortly after the traumatic event to prevent the development of chronic symptoms. For instance, a crisis intervention team may conduct debriefing sessions with affected individuals immediately after a workplace accident. These sessions offer an opportunity for individuals to express their thoughts and emotions. They receive psychoeducation about stress reactions and access to resources for ongoing support.

4. Support Groups: Trauma Survivors Support Group:

They are connecting with others who have experienced similar traumas through support groups. It can offer a sense of understanding and community. For example, Alex might join a trauma survivors’ support group. Where individuals share their experiences and coping strategies and provide mutual support. This shared understanding can reduce feelings of isolation and contribute to the normalization of reactions to trauma.

5. Self-Care Strategies: Mindfulness and Relaxation Exercises:

Self-care strategies are integral to complement formal treatment. For example, Alex might incorporate mindfulness meditation or deep breathing exercises into their daily routine to manage stress and promote relaxation. These techniques can help regulate emotional responses and contribute to a sense of well-being.

These therapeutic approaches, when tailored to the individual’s needs, can form a comprehensive treatment plan for Acute Stress Disorder. It addresses both immediate symptoms and long-term recovery. It’s crucial to emphasize the collaborative nature of treatment, where the individual participates in their healing process with the guidance and support of mental health professionals.

In conclusion, recognizing and addressing acute stress disorder is crucial for preventing the potential progression of post-traumatic stress disorder. Seeking professional help and employing various therapeutic approaches can aid individuals in coping with the aftermath of trauma and help the path to recovery.

About author

Karuna Kaul is psycho socio clinical psychologist, who works with all age group people. Her profession motivates her to serve people who are facing behavioral issues. She has over 8 years of experience and has successfully established credibility in the areas of counselling and wellness. Assessment and behavioral analysis and training and coaching. She has been an active advocate of mental health awareness. And all her endeavors in the field are primarily focused on educating more and more people about Mental Health concerns and promoting Holistic Wellbeing. She has done master in clinical psychology PG Diploma in counselling and guidance and certified in drug addiction counselling Also she has done neuro medicine psychology from London University, Kent College of United Kingdom. With an experience of six years, she had worked with various organization which provides mental health services.