Acute stress disorder Explained

What is acute stress disorder?

Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a psychological condition that is seen in an individual having undergone a recent trauma. It is marked by a sudden development of anxiety, distress, feeling of helplessness or fear within a month of experiencing or witnessing a stressful episode. It usually lasts from few days to a month, after the traumatic incident.


Often, an individual can cope up with the acute stress condition, and the symptoms settle down with time. Sometimes, professional help is necessary to cope up with the situation.

About 6-33% of people are said to develop ASD within a month of facing a traumatic experience.


The only cause of ASD is experiencing or witnessing a tragedy. ASD is always caused in response to an unpleasant experience.

It can be caused by:

  • Violence
  • Being a victim or witness of serious accidents
  • Sexual abuse
  • Being in conflict or war zones
  • Death of loved ones
  • Unexpected life crisis

The severity of the event and the individual coping capability decides the intensity of the ASD and the likelihood of it turning into posttraumatic stress disorder(PTSD).

Risk Factors

  • Past traumatic experiences
  • History of PTSD
  • Individuals with psychological problems
  • Individual’s who show signs of “avoidance behaviour personality trait”, when confronted with difficult situations

Symptoms and signs

The symptoms of ASD can be evident as:

  • Reliving the trauma: In the form of flashbacks, dreams, nightmares, and memories, illusions that intensify the distress.
  • Negative mood: Feeling low and depressed, persistent sadness and inability to experience happiness, being emotionally upset, feeling guilty and shame.
  • Avoidance: Avoiding conversations or cues that would remind of the tragedy. Denying that the incident has taken place.
  • Arousal symptoms: Always being on guard, inability to sleep properly, aggression towards self or others, poor concentration.
  • Dissociative symptoms: Inability to perceive things correctly, feeling numb, being detached from everything, social withdrawal, forgetting an important part of the event.


ASD is diagnosed based on the symptoms and through a psychometric test that involves questioning an individual about the incident and their feelings. Your doctor will try and understand the extent and severity of the stress by asking and noting your feelings with regards to the trauma.


Your will be further examined to rule out any other clinical conditions, side effects of medications, existing mental issues and drug or alcohol addiction to confirm the diagnosis of ASD.


The treatment options will include one or more of the following:

  • Antidepressants, antianxiety and other medication.
  • Psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy or hypnotherapy to release the stress from the subconscious mind.
  • Addressing their immediate needs of shelter, food and clothing.
  • Psychiatric education and emotional support.
  • Hospitalisation might be necessary in cases of suicidal tendencies, or the risk of harming others is suspected.


As it is a cause and effect reaction to trauma, it may not always be preventable. Seeking treatment within hours of experiencing an unpleasant experience can be helpful.                                                   


If ASD is not addressed in time, there is a risk of it developing into PTSD. Individuals unable to cope up with the condition suffer from severe anxiety and stress, which can become chronic and take years to resolve. Sometimes, ASD can lead to suicidal tendencies.

Next steps

If you know, anyone with signs of ASD after a traumatic experience, help them to seek professional medical assistance.

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  • Acute stress disorder and post traumatic stress disorder- Australian centre for post traumatic mental health – Accessed on 2 February 2017 — https://www.psychology.org.au/Assets/Files/PTSD_Algorithm.pdf
  • The physician role in managing acute stress disorder—American family physician—Accessed on 2 February 2017– http://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/1001/p643.html
  • Symptoms of acute stress disorder—MH reference—Accessed on 2 February 2017– https://mhreference.org/anxiety-disorders/acute-stress-symptoms/
  • Acute stress disorder—National centre for PTSD—accessed on 2 February 2017– http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treatment/early/acute-stress-disorder.asp
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3146193/
  • Acute Stress Disorder. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed on 2 February 2017. http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/problems/acute-stress-disorder.asp.

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