Acute Stress Disorder – Causes, Diagnosis And Treatment

By Nadia Khan|Updated August 18, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Heather Cashell, LCSW

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.

How do you define stress? Isn't stress just an everyday part of modern living? Yes, that is true. Often, after you go through a particularly stressful situation or event, it will take time to refocus and to get yourself back on track. However, in people with Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), things aren't that simple. In this article, we focus on Acute Stress Disorder, its causes, diagnosis and some of the many treatments available.

What Is Acute Stress Disorder?

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Acute Stress Disorder was introduced in 1994 into the DSM-IV. The general current diagnostic standard for the psychiatric diagnosis are alike in many ways to those for PTSD. The main difference between the two is that the diagnosis for ASD can only be provided within four weeks after a traumatic event. Also, the criteria for ASD diagnosis has a larger emphasis on dissociative symptoms than that for PTSD.

Causes of Acute Stress Disorder

Although more research needs to be undertaken into factors that may put certain individuals at risk of developing ASD, there is some information to assert that the condition occurs after a particularly stressful and upsetting event. When the term 'acute' is used, it refers to symptoms that come on rapidly but that do not last for a great length of time.

You may find yourself suffering from the condition if you have an unexpected life crisis. For example:

  • Terrorist event
  • War
  • Major disaster
  • Serious accident
  • Assault
  • Rape
  • Domestic violence
  • Sudden bereavement and more

Who is Most at Risk for Acute Stress Disorder?

Although anyone at all can develop the condition after enduring a trauma, certain groups run a higher risk of having ASD. These include:

  • People with a history of PTSD or ASD
  • People with a history of experiencing dissociative symptoms at times of trauma
  • Individuals who have been through a traumatic event in their past
  • Individuals with mental health problems

Effects and Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

When you have been exposed to a very stressful event and go on to display the symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder, these will develop within hours or even minutes. For some people, these symptoms will pass as quickly as they arrived. For others, they last for days or several weeks. If you're worried that you or someone close to you has ASD, look out for some of the following symptoms:

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms are caused by stress hormones being released into your bloodstream as well as the over-activity of nervous signals to different parts of your body. Symptoms you may display include:Nausea

  • Palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Chest pains
  • Breathing problems
  • Abdominal pains

Psychological Symptoms

Physical symptoms are caused by stress hormones being released into your bloodstream as well as the over-activity of nervous signals to different parts of your body. Symptoms you may display include:Nausea

  • Palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Chest pains
  • Breathing problems
  • Abdominal pains

Psychological Symptoms

You may also experience some of the following:

  • Cutting yourself off from friends and family
  • No longer enjoying once enjoyable activities
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Tearfulness
  • Low mood
  • Poor concentration
  • Irritability
  • Feeling on guard or tense
  • Being unable to sit still
  • Being easily startled

Additionally, you may also experience:

  • Recurrent intrusive and unpleasant flashbacks or dreams
  • Self-destructive or reckless behavior

Dissociative Symptoms

Dissociative symptoms can often be worrying to you as an individual. These may include:

  • Feelings of emotional detachment
  • Avoidance of people, places and anything else that may trigger memories of the traumatic event
  • Feeling that your emotions or thought don't belong to you or don't seem real
  • Reduced awareness of life around you
  • Feeling your environment seems unreal or strange
  • Being unable to remember some of the crucial aspects of the traumatic event (dissociative amnesia)

If you feel that you are suffering from any of the above or that you need help with coming to terms with a traumatic life event, you don't need to suffer alone. You can seek understanding and professional help from a licensed and certified professional from today. To begin your journey and to be matched with the right therapist for your needs, click here.

Diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder

To obtain an accurate diagnosis, it's important to note that your symptoms must last for between 3 days to 4 weeks. These must also first show within four weeks of the event that traumatized you. Your doctor or therapist will also need to rule out other potential causes of your symptoms, including:

  • Heath problems
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Medication side effects
  • Other psychiatric disorders

A crucial feature in the diagnosis of ASD is dissociation, where you feel your mind is detached from your body or your emotions. This may also be characterized by you viewing the world as being unreal or as though you are living in a dream. Dissociative amnesia where you have a poor memory of traumatic events is another sign that you may have Acute Stress Disorder.

Acute Stress Disorder Vs. PTSD

It's true that the defining symptoms of ASD often overlap with those of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, the real difference between the two conditions is time. If your behavioral disturbances and symptoms of ASD last for longer than one month and if they cause you great distress or inability to function as normal, your diagnosis will then be changed to PTSD.

Acute Stress Disorder Statistics

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According to information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the following statistics are true although these have the potential to change as more becomes known about ASD and as measures for the condition become more uniform across the board regarding research:

  • A study of assault and robbery survivors discovered that 25 percent met ASD criteria
  • Survivors of assault had a rate of 19 percent
  • People involved in motor vehicle accidents had ASD rates of between 13 to 21 percent
  • Industrial accident survivors showed a rate of 6 percent
  • Mass shooting victims had a rate of 33 percent

Current Treatments for Acute Stress Disorder

It's true that often no treatment at all is needed for ASD as the symptoms tend to go after you have dealt with the traumatic situation. You may find that all you need to understand and get past your symptoms is to comprehend the underlying cause and to talk things over with loved ones.

However, if you're currently struggling with Acute Stress Disorder and things don't seem to be improving, there's plenty of help and support out there for you. You no doubt feel very lost and cut off from others, even from people who may have experienced the same traumatic event. It's true that everyone experienced trauma differently and this is why it's imperative to seek help as soon as you can. ASD turns your entire world on its head. It damages relationships. It made you feel alone and trapped in a loop of disruptive symptoms. By getting in touch with an online therapist at, you can take control of your present and future, so your past no longer defines you.

A key element of treating Acute Stress Disorder is regaining your sense of empowerment. You need to establish a sense of security, hope, and support along with your therapist. He or she also helps you to:

  • Define and achieve treatment goals
  • Break down your problems into manageable pieces
  • Help you to develop and utilize coping skills
  • Teach you techniques to reduce arousal
  • Manage your emotions and thoughts
  • Create a restful sleep routine

As well as counseling, other helpful treatments for ASD are:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Trauma-focused CBT is a form of talking therapy that's built around the concept that thinking a certain way can fuel or trigger some mental health issues. You will be guided to understand your thought patterns and to identify any that are unhelpful. You will then be able to change the way you think. Your thought patterns become more helpful and less worrisome.

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, issues are broken down into five areas:

  • Actions
  • Situations
  • Physical feelings
  • Emotions
  • Thoughts

The therapy has its roots in the concept that each of these areas is entirely interconnected. Each affects the other. CBT enables you to identify and to pinpoint specific issues to solve them. It's structured and enables you and your therapist to talk about specific problems and to set achievable goals together. It helps you to focus on the here and now rather than on the past.


Taking medicine to help you through ASD is sometimes an option. You may be prescribed:

  • Beta-blockers. Beta-blockers can relieve some symptoms that arise from your body releases stress hormones. These drugs do not cause drowsiness and do not act like tranquilizers so you can function normally without worry.
  • Diazepam is a benzodiazepine tranquilizer. It's not often used in the treatment of Acute Stress Disorder as its effects only last for a few days at a time. Diazepam is also an addictive medication.

What if Symptoms Persist?

As discussed earlier, if your symptoms of ASD last for more than a month it's important for you to speak to a doctor to be assessed for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Acute Stress Disorder DSM 5 is a condition that can often be dealt with swiftly with the help of a counseling or medical professional. If you've been through an event that has had a significant effect on you, it might be time to seek the help you need.

Below are commonly asked questions on this topic:

What are 3 major symptoms of acute stress disorder?
What are 4 symptoms of acute stress?
What is the difference between acute stress and PTSD?
How do you get acute stress disorder?
How is acute stress treated?
How long does acute stress last?
Can acute stress disorder turn into PTSD?
What medications are used for acute stress disorder?
Is acute stress disorder a disability?
Who is most at risk for acute stress disorder?

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