Acute Stress Disorder

Acute stress disorder may be identified by a sudden development of severe anxiety and/or decrease in emotional responsiveness, brought on in direct relation to a traumatic event such as a death, or witness to another disturbing event. Symptoms generally develop within one month of the trauma, and some of the symptoms are identical to those of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

Signs and symptoms of acute stress disorder will likely vary by individual or situation, but there are generalized symptoms that may indicate this particular diagnosis. While anyone may suffer from one or more of these symptoms at any given time, when they persist and begin to interfere with the function of a normal, daily routine, a serious mental illness may be developing. Signs to look for are the following:

  • Problems with sleep, such as insomnia or trouble getting to sleep
  • Flashbacks or uncontrollable memories of the incident
  • Nightmares or reoccurring dreams of the incident
  • Cold sweating
  • Shortness of breath or heart palpitations
  • Numbness of the hands or feet
  • Panic or generalized nervousness
  • Nausea or diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Sudden obsessive behavior, such as checking door locks or excessive hand washing

Causes of Acute Stress Disorder

The exact cause of acute stress disorder is largely unknown. While many people can face a traumatic event or situation and recover naturally, those with a tendency toward mental illness may be triggered during the event and find it difficult to cope thereafter. Studies have reported  that susceptibility to mental illness may be passed along to family members. Additionally, chemical imbalance in the brain may play a role. When people are subject to constant stress in their daily lives, natural chemicals in the brain are affected. With this imbalance, may come the loss of ability to control mood swings or memory. Lack of a healthy lifestyle including things such as regular exercise and poor eating habits can contribute as well.

Diagnosing Acute Stress Disorder

When symptoms point to more than one mental illness, diagnosis can be tricky. Generally, an evaluation will take place initially, followed by a physical examination. Questions will reveal family history of both physical and mental illness, as well as details surrounding any potential triggering event. If no physical cause is found, an appointment should be made with a psychiatrist or psychologist to begin assessment of potential mental disorder. Assessment will generally include review of the severity of symptons, questions regarding events before, during and after any trauma, and observation of current behavior during the interview. A determination can then be made based upon the criteria that defines acute stress disorder.

Treating Acute Stress Disorder

Treatment of acute stress disorder may also vary according to individual. There are many treatment options available, and professional advice and discussion regarding the most suitable option is recommended.

  • Traditional medication may be prescribed to reduce symptoms or lessen anxiety. These may include anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications.
  • Psychotherapy is a type of counseling which coaches with the development of strategies to learn coping skills and live more comfortably with the disorder.
  • Cognitive therapy is a process by which the individual works to become aware of certain events, thought patterns or behavior that triggers negative emotional response. Once recognized, the behavior can be changed or avoided.
  • Diet and lifestyle changes may help to bring brain chemicals back into balance. Exercise and healthy eating habits can reduce the effects of mental illness.
  • Meditation or relaxation techniques may help to ease the mind and allow a refocus to more effective and proactive behavior.
  • Support groups with individuals who are having similar experiences can bring about comfort and encourage wellness.