Acute Stress Disorder – If You Have It, What Can You Do About It?

Car accidents. Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Things that are out of our control take us by surprise, leaving us shell-shocked for days, weeks, or longer. These traumatic events and others like them cause significant stress and stir up feelings of helplessness, fear, and prolonged anxiety. 

In the early 1990s, experts labeled those reactions “acute stress disorder” and put a time frame on them — when they start within three days of a traumatic event and last up to 30 days. 

What Is Acute Stress Disorder?

“Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a mental health condition that can occur immediately after a traumatic event. It can cause a range of psychological symptoms and, without recognition or treatment, it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Medical News Today

The US Department of Veterans Affairs found that, on average, 19% of those exposed to trauma experience ASD, and ASD increases their risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

Individuals react to trauma differently, but many will experience psychological, emotional, and physical responses. 

  • Psychological – Someone who’s had a car accident may seem jumpy and on high alert all the time. 
  • Emotional –  Their emotions may be all over the place, and they may cry at the drop of a hat the moment someone mentions the car that was totaled. 
  • Physical – They may be physically nauseous and unable to eat much, exhausted but unable to sleep. 

These are common reactions you can expect when you or someone you love has experienced trauma. But how do you know if those responses have moved into an acute stress phase?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, can help. It’s a standardized guide for diagnosing patients. 

The fifth edition of the DSM (DSM-5) provides five categories of ASD symptoms:

  1. Intrusive – As you can imagine, intrusive symptoms are those that intrude on the present by continually reminding you of past trauma. You may have difficulty concentrating and staying focused because you have intense flashbacks that make you re-experience the traumatic event.

If you were in a car accident, every accident you come across may bring back memories of the wreck you were in. If you’ve been exposed to gun violence, every TV show or movie that includes a shootout may remind you of the event you witnessed. July 4th fireworks can cause the same reaction.

When external reminders trigger memories that are distressing and invasive, they fall into this category. 

  1. Negative mood symptoms – When you feel like you’re experiencing the blues, only you can’t seem to shake them no matter how hard you try, you may be reacting with negative mood symptoms. 

These symptoms are more than just feeling a little down. They’re the inability to feel joyful or happy, even when your surroundings would normally make you feel that way. Instead, anxiety, depression, irritability and other negative feelings persist day in and day out.

  1. DissociativeDissociative symptoms are one of the ways the brain and body cope with extreme stress. If you’re not able to remember some of the details of a traumatic event, your brain may be protecting you with dissociative amnesia. If you’re simply feeling strange and disconnected, as if you’re watching your life from outside of it, you may also be experiencing dissociative symptoms.
  1. Avoidance – Someone who’s suffered a serious injury in a car accident may not want to drive through the intersection where it happened. A survivor of a natural disaster may decide to move far away from the town the twister destroyed. Avoidance symptoms are simply avoiding the people, places, and things that remind you of the trauma you experienced. 
  1. Arousal Our brains are wired with fight or flight responses. When danger is near, we react without thinking, our brains and bodies preparing us to take action or run to safety. Arousal symptoms show up when our brains stay on high alert long after the threat has gone. 

What that looks like could be not falling asleep right away or waking up frequently throughout the night. Not being able to concentrate at work or school. Getting upset at the slightest misunderstandings. If you’ve experienced trauma and are dealing with acute stress disorder as a result, you may feel like you just can’t relax anymore. 

Trauma Counseling and Treatment for ASD

If you’re struggling with acute stress disorder, know you’re not alone. Many people experience this condition at some point in their lives. Trauma counseling can be a helpful way to manage your symptoms as you learn how to cope with post-traumatic stress. Post-traumatic stress therapy can help you understand what you’re experiencing and guide you to work through your emotions. Therapists can also provide you with tools and strategies to heal from the trauma you’ve faced and move forward. 

Of course, the goal of any trauma therapy is to help you develop healthy coping mechanisms. One of the therapies a counselor may use is Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for the anxiety and depression that comes with ASD.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common type of talk therapy (psychotherapy). You work with a mental health counselor (psychotherapist or therapist) in a structured way, attending a limited number of sessions. CBT helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.”

Mayo Clinic

Conversations with a professional can be so helpful. Other resources trauma counseling may include are:

  • Mindfulness training Mindfulness is a form of therapy that can help you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings in the present moment. If you have ASD, this type of training can help you manage the symptoms by focusing on the here and now.
  • Relaxation techniques – Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique where you tense and relax different muscle groups to help you relax. Do this by lying down in a comfortable position and relaxing different muscle groups, starting with your toes and moving up to your head.
  • Education about post-traumatic stress – A counselor can help you learn about post-traumatic stress to help you manage your symptoms and prevent further trauma. 
  • Medication – If needed, a psychologist may prescribe antidepressants or other medication in conjunction with CBT and the other therapies. 

Recognizing the symptoms of acute stress disorder is the first step to getting the help you need. If you or someone you know is struggling with ASD, Best Day’s professional counselors are ready to help. Give us a call today.