Acute Stress Disorder

There is a strong link between Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some people develop PTSD after having ASD.

About 19% of people develop ASD after experiencing a traumatic event, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Everyone responds to traumatic events in different ways, but it is important to be aware of the possible physical and psychological consequences that follow.

In this article, we discuss what ASD is and its symptoms and causes. We also cover diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

What is ASD?

ASD is a relatively new psychological diagnosis. It was first introduced by the American Psychiatric Association in 1994 in the fourth edition of the Mental Health Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Although it shares many of the same symptoms as PTSD, ASD is a different diagnosis.

A person with ASD experiences psychological distress immediately after a traumatic event. Unlike PTSD, ASD is a temporary condition, and symptoms usually persist for at least 3 to 30 days after the traumatic event.

If a person experiences symptoms for more than a month, the doctor will usually review them for PTSD.

Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

People with ASD experience symptoms similar to PTSD and other stress disorders.

The symptoms of ASD fall into five broad categories:

  1. Intrusion symptoms. It happens when a person is unable to review a traumatic event through flashbacks, memories or dreams.
  2. Negative mood. One may experience negative thoughts, sadness and low mood.
  3. Dissociative symptoms. These may include a changed sense of reality, a lack of awareness of the surroundings, and a failure to remember parts of the traumatic event.
  4. Avoidance symptoms. People with these symptoms deliberately avoid thoughts, feelings, people or places that relate to the traumatic event.
  5. Arousal symptoms. These can include insomnia and other sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, and irritability or aggression, which can be verbal or physical. The person may also feel stressed or alert and may be shocked very easily.

People with ASD can develop additional mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • feeling a sense of impending doom
  • excessive worrying
  • difficulty concentrating
  • fatigue
  • restlessness
  • racing thoughts

Symptoms of depression include:

  • persistent feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or numbness
  • fatigue
  • crying unexpectedly
  • loss of interest in activities that were once pleasurable
  • changes in appetite or body weight
  • thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Causes of Acute Stress Disorder

People may develop ASD after experiencing one or more traumatic events. A traumatic event can cause significant physical, emotional or psychological damage.

Potential traumatic events, among others, may include:

  • the death of a loved one
  • the threat of death or serious injury
  • natural disasters
  • motor vehicle accidents
  • sexual assault, rape, or domestic abuse
  • receiving a terminal diagnosis
  • surviving a traumatic brain injury

Risk Factors

A person can develop ASD at any point in their life. However, some people may be at higher risk of developing this condition.

Factors that may increase an individual’s risk of developing ASD include:

  • previously experiencing, witnessing, or having knowledge of a traumatic event
  • a history of other mental health disorders
  • a history of dissociative reactions to past traumatic events
  • being younger than 40 years old
  • being female

Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder

The healthcare professional will work with a person to develop a treatment plan that meets their individual needs. Treatment for ASD focuses on reducing symptoms, improving coping and preventing PTSD.

ASD treatment options may include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Doctors usually recommend CBT as the first-line treatment for people with ASD. CBT involves working with a trained mental health professional to develop effective coping strategies.
  • Mindfulness. Mindfulness-based interventions teach techniques for managing stress and anxiety. These can include meditation and breathing exercises.
  • Medications. A healthcare professional may prescribe antidepressants or anticonvulsants to help treat a person’s symptoms.


It is not always possible to avoid traumatic events. However, there are ways to reduce the risk of developing ASD later.

These may include:

  • Consult a doctor or mental health professional after a traumatic event
  • Seeking support from family and friends
  • Treating other mental health disorders
  • Working with a behavioral coach to develop effective coping strategies
  • Getting ready for training if a person’s work involves a high risk of traumatic events.
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