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What is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder can occur whenever a person is exposed to traumatic events, including, but not limited to, experiencing or witnessing a car accident, the death of a loved one, assault, a mass shooting, or other horrific violent acts. Trauma can be thought of as bodily harm or psychological harm through a mentally or emotionally distressing event. While bodily injury can take time to physically heal, the effects of mental and emotional trauma can have severe lasting implications.

The greater and closer the exposure to a person's trauma, the more likely they will develop these lasting mental effects. Firsthand exposure has the highest chance of inducing trauma, but secondhand exposure can be just as harmful.

Acute stress disorder occurs in 5-20% of people experiencing a traumatic event, with half of these people at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if symptoms continue. This was historically the case for many soldiers fighting in World War ll who were constantly under life or death situations, with most experiencing PTSD symptoms after the initial trauma and many after the war had ended. Though acute stress disorder has many of the same symptoms as PTSD, it does not predict this disorder, and most people do not develop PTSD.

Common Symptoms

Symptoms can typically last from a few days to a month, though it can always depend on the person, if they receive care, or their pre-existing stress response to these events. If these symptoms are still experienced after a month and are affecting the quality of life, the disorder would be classified as PTSD.

Avoiding behavior- distancing yourself physically from people, places, and things that bring you back to the trauma. Also includes mentally avoiding certain thoughts or memories that may evoke any association with the trauma

Intrusive thoughts- memories of the trauma may resurface unprovoked during the day, or appear in dreams

Mood swings- you may feel like you can’t truly be happy around others or yourself and are in a constant state of unhappiness, depression, or despair

Negative emotions- guilt, fear, helplessness, worry, and numbness are all common emotions, as well as physical manifestations of these emotions such as physical aggression, insomnia, or physical illness

Dissociative tendencies- this may include feelings of being detached from your body, moving through life in a haze, time seeming to slow, or not feeling connected to life around you

Ways to Promote Healing

Whether your symptoms last for a few days or turn into an extended condition, recognizing that you have survived a traumatic event is imperative. After an extremely stressful event, it is natural to mentally minimize the event or deny its impact to try and avoid unpleasant mental and emotional repercussions. However, getting help sooner than later may greatly increase your ability to heal and recover. Some helpful resources include talking to a trauma specialist, cognitive behavior therapy, finding your immediate support system, or psychologically debriefing the trauma in groups. All of these resources help acknowledge the trauma and the impact it has had on you while moving to reframe the incident so it is easier to process and provide you with a sense of solidarity and support.


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