Understanding Acute Stress Disorder: A Guide to Coping and Resilience

acute stress disorder

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Experiencing a traumatic event can overwhelm your senses and create a significant stress load on your body. Trauma can cause your heart rate to increase, make you hyper aware of your surroundings, and activate your fight or flight response. What if you are experiencing intense symptoms weeks or months after the event?

Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a mental health condition that occurs after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It is characterized by intense fear, helplessness, and horror. With ASD affecting up to 33% of trauma survivors, it is essential to understand the cycle of trauma and the symptoms to look for so you can get the help you need as you cope with your experience.

In this blog post, we will discuss what ASD is, its symptoms, causes, and treatment options. We will also provide tips on how to cope with ASD and support someone who may be going through it.

What is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is a psychological condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. ASD symptoms typically occur within three days to 1 month. 

Although ASD is similar to PTSD, they are not the same. PTSD is diagnosed if symptoms last longer than one month. Note that symptoms can begin months or years after the traumatic event, as well.

The type of trauma you experience can affect your chances of developing ASD. If you experience a natural disaster like a hurricane, your chances of developing this disorder are lower than if you experienced a violent crime like robbery or witnessing a mass shooting. 

Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

It can be challenging to know when the stress you are experiencing after a traumatic event is normal and natural or if it is a sign of a bigger issue. Symptoms vary from person to person.

Common symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) include:

  • Flashbacks and intrusive memories of the traumatic event
  • Avoiding people, places, or things that remind the individual of the event
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Feeling on edge, irritable, or easily startled
  • Physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms after a traumatic event, it’s essential to seek help from a mental health professional. 

Causes of Acute Stress Disorder

ASD can be caused by any event that is perceived as traumatic to you. What may be traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for you, and vice versa. Your reactions to events are highly individualized and can depend on your past experiences and coping mechanisms. 

Causes of Acute Stress Disorder include: 

  • Natural disasters
  • Assault or violence
  • Car accidents
  • Witnessing a traumatic event
  • Serious medical diagnosis or treatment

No matter what traumatic event you’ve experienced, ASD is possible, though not definite. 

Does Acute Stress Disorder Lead to PTSD?

While not everyone with ASD develops PTSD, it is a strong precursor. Over 80% of those with ASD will experience PTSD within six months. Because of this strong predisposition to PTSD, it is critical that you receive help from a licensed counselor at the early stages of processing your trauma to ensure you have the coping skills necessary to mitigate your chances of developing PTSD, which can significantly impact your daily life. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing Acute Stress Disorder and symptoms are lasting longer than a month or getting more intense, please seek help. There are treatment options that can help you manage your symptoms and process your traumatic experience healthily.

Treatment Options

Fortunately, there are effective treatments available for ASD. The most common treatment is therapy, specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors contributing to the symptoms.

In some cases, medication may also be prescribed to help manage symptoms such as anxiety or sleep disturbances.

Common treatments for Acute Stress Disorder include: 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):  This therapy helps you identify, change, and reframe negative thought patterns and behaviors contributing to your symptoms. It may also involve exposure therapy, where you are gradually exposed to the traumatic event in a controlled environment. Your counselor will develop a personalized approach based on what you are experiencing.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): This therapy uses eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation to help you process your traumatic memories and decrease distress. 

Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage symptoms such as anxiety or sleep disturbances. Understand that medication alone is not typically recommended as a long-term treatment for ASD.

It’s important to work with a trained mental health professional to find the right treatment plan for you. Everyone’s experience with ASD is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. 

Coping with Acute Stress Disorder

Coping with ASD can be challenging, and there are steps you can take to help manage your symptoms and support your mental health journey. Although some of these may seem like not enough to make your symptoms go away, intentionally caring for yourself in these ways does add up to reducing the severity of symptoms over time.

  • Seek professional help: as mentioned previously, seeking help is pivotal in recovering from your traumatic event and ASD. Working with a licensed therapist who specializes in treating trauma and ASD can provide you with the tools and techniques to manage your symptoms and process your traumatic experience.
  • Practice self-care: Take care of yourself mentally and emotionally. This can include getting enough sleep and engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation. 
  • Breathing exercises:  Mindful breathing is clinically proven to help you manage anxiety and stress. Taking slow, deep breaths can help calm your body’s response to stress and bring balance to your mind and emotions. According to a study by the National Institute of Health, mindfulness breathing can significantly reduce anxiety and increase positive thoughts over time. 
  • Connect with others: Reach out to friends and family for support, or join a support group for those who have experienced similar traumatic events. Surrounding yourself with people who understand what you’ve experienced creates a safe space and ensures you aren’t isolating yourself, which can worsen symptoms.
  • Be patient with yourself: This process takes time, and it’s essential to be patient and kind to yourself as you navigate your healing journey.

Your counselor will be able to personalize your approach with ways to cope with ASD and any anxiety you are experiencing, and this is a great place to start. 

Supporting Someone with Acute Stress Disorder

If you know someone who has experienced a traumatic event and is now showing signs of ASD, you may feel helpless and not know what you can do to help.

If someone you care about is going through ASD, here are some ways you can support them:

  • Listen without judgment and try to understand their perspective
  • Encourage them to seek professional help if needed
  • Offer to assist with everyday tasks or responsibilities
  • Educate yourself about ASD and how to be a supportive ally

Remember, your support is imperative to your loved one’s healing. Try your best to be patient and understanding of the intense symptoms they are experiencing, and support them in ways they find helpful. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis:

  • Call 911 if you need emergency medical assistance.
  • Call 988 if you need to speak to a trained crisis counselor who can help with mental health-related distress. You can also text 988 or chat online with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
  • If you are a Veteran or are concerned about one, call 988, then press “1” to speak with a responder qualified to support Veterans. You can also text 838255 or chat online with the Veterans Crisis Line.
  • Go to the nearest Emergency Room for immediate medical attention.

In Conclusion

Acute stress disorder is a challenging condition, and with the proper support and treatment, regaining mental health is possible. If you or someone you know is struggling with symptoms of ASD, remember that it’s not a sign of weakness to seek help. By understanding and supporting each other, we can create a more empathetic and resilient community.  

Healing takes time, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to coping with ASD. Take care of yourself and reach out for help when needed. You don’t have to go through this alone. 

If you are experiencing signs of ASD and would like to get help from a licensed counselor, call us at (833)-274-heal or get started here to connect with a trauma specialist who can help you in your improvement process. By receiving treatment, you can reduce or relieve your symptoms, as well as increase your chances of preventing long-term PTSD.

More on This Topic:

How To Meditate For Anxiety: Discover The Top 4 Meditation Techniques To Help You Find Peace

Panic Attack Vs Anxiety Attack: 4 Key Differences To Tell Them Apart

What Is Somatic Therapy? A Holistic Approach To Anxiety And Trauma

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

All articles are written in conjunction with the Makin Wellness research team. The content on this page is not a replacement for professional diagnosis, treatment, or informed advice. It is important to consult with a qualified mental health professional before making any decisions or taking action. Please refer to our terms of use for further details.

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