Acute Stress Disorder is the result of a person being exposed to one or more traumatic events. The symptoms of the disorder may appear after someone experiences a disturbing event firsthand that involves a threat, death, serious injury, or physical, sexual violation. Once the event takes place, symptoms can initiate and worsen after the trauma occurs lasting anywhere from three days to one month.

An estimated five to 20 percent of individuals exposed to traumas involving a car accident, assault, or witness a mass shooting will develop acute stress disorder. According to the website Psychology Today, approximately 50 percent of those go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

An acute stress disorder diagnosed was devised to identify those who could eventually develop post-traumatic stress disorder. The condition was initially known as shell shock, which dates as far back as World War I, due to similar reactions of soldiers who suffered from concussions due to exploding bombs or blows to their central nervous system (CNS).

It is widely believed among physicians and clinical therapists that the more direct the exposure to a traumatic event, the higher the risk someone will be mentally harmed. When using a school shooting as an example, someone who is injured will likely be severely impacted psychologically, and a student who witnesses a classmate being shot or killed will be more affected than someone who was in a different area when the violence happened.

Unfortunately, secondhand exposure has the potential to be traumatic, and those who are witness to such heinous events must be monitored for signs of emotional distress.

Symptoms Of Acute Stress Disorder

Acute stress disorder will be diagnosable when symptoms persist for at least three days and last no more than one month after trauma. If the symptoms persist for more than a month, it will then be given the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Acute stress disorder symptoms fall into five categories according to the DSM-5, which include:

Intrusion Symptoms

Intrusive and involuntary memories of distress, which involve nightmares where the trauma persists.

Negative Mood Symptoms

A continued inability to experience positive emotions, such as love or happiness.

Dissociative Symptoms

Sensations of time slowing down and seeing yourself from an outsider’s perspective – feeling as though you are in a daze.

Arousal Symptoms

Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, exhibiting feelings of irritability or problems with concentrating.

Those who struggle with acute stress disorder are at higher risk of developing additional mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Some of these symptoms can include:

  • Excessive worrying
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Racing thoughts
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Hopelessness
  • Numbness
  • Loss of interest in activities that were once pleasing
  • Changes in body weight and appetite
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Causes And Risk Factors For Acute Stress Disorder

As we’ve described above, acute stress disorder can occur after someone experiences a traumatic event. Traumatic events can result in significant physical, emotional, or psychological harm. Traumatic events can include:

  • The threat of death or severe injury
  • Losing a loved one
  • Natural disasters
  • Car accidents
  • Sexual assault, rape, or domestic abuse
  • A terminal diagnosis
  • Surviving a traumatic brain injury

Acute stress disorder can develop at any point in a person’s life; however, some may be at a higher risk than others to develop the condition. Some of these factors that increase a person’s likelihood of developing acute stress disorder include:

  • Having previously experienced, witnessed, or possessing knowledge of a traumatic event
  • Having a history of other mental health disorders
  • A history of dissociative reactions to past trauma
  • Someone younger than 40 years old
  • Being female

>Diagnosing Acute Stress Disorder

Only a doctor or mental health professional can adequately diagnose acute stress disorder.

The process will involve questions that regard the traumatic event, and the symptom’s the person in question displays.

Healthcare professionals typically diagnose the disorder if someone develops nine or more ASD symptoms within a month of the traumatic event.

As we described earlier in this article, symptoms that last any longer than one month will be considered post-traumatic stress disorder.

To Successfully Diagnose Acute Stress Disorder, The Medical Professional Must Rule Out Other Possible Causes, Which Include:

  • Substance use
  • Other psychiatric disorders
  • Underlying medical conditions

Treating Acute Stress Disorder

Healthcare professionals will work alongside someone to develop a treatment plan tailored to their needs. Treatment for the disorder will focus on a reduction in symptoms, improved coping mechanisms, and working to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder.

Treatment options can include:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is typically recommended as the first line of treatment for those who develop acute stress disorder. CBT involves working alongside trained professionals to develop effective coping strategies.


These intervention techniques are used to manage stress and anxiety, which can include meditation and breathing exercises.


While physicians may generally try to avoid medication, it may be used as a last resort. Doctors can prescribe antidepressants or anticonvulsants to treat a person’s symptoms.

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