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How trauma creates acute stress: Signs to watch out for

September 5, 2022 - 16 min read

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What is acute stress?

Symptoms of acute stress disorder

What are acute stressors?

Risk factors for acute stress disorder

How to prevent acute stress disorder

How to treat acute stress disorder

Acute stress in the workplace

When to seek the help of an expert

Please note: This article discusses trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

“Trauma” is a heavy word.

It carries a stigma, drawing invasive questions from people who don’t understand. This often causes victims to stay silent about their past, forcing them into deeper isolation. Over time, being alone can compound the already-harmful effects of negative experiences.

Everyone will experience trauma differently. But, among other things, trauma can impact a person’s:

  • Sense of self
  • Sense of safety
  • Ability to regulate emotions
  • Ability to form meaningful relationships

Popular culture might have taught us that trauma only occurs after a life-threatening event. But this simply isn’t true. Traumatic events come in all shapes and sizes. And what impacts one person might not affect someone else.

This diversity of trauma means it affects more people than we think. Studies have found that 60% of men and 50% of women will experience a traumatic event in their lives

And about 20% of those cases will turn into acute stress disorder (ASD).

If you’re experiencing this disorder, it’s okay. We see you. You’re brave for seeking information about this medical condition, and we’re here to help. Here’s everything you need to know about acute stress and how it affects your mental health.

 

What is acute stress?

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), an acute stress reaction occurs when you develop psychological symptoms shortly after a scary or traumatic event

This is vastly different from other types of stress, like chronic stress, which might be more familiar to you. 

Chronic stress, a bad type of stress, occurs when a person experiences a constant feeling of pressure without any relief. This can cause long-term health problems such as aches and pains, insomnia, and low energy. If it’s truly severe, it can lead to cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, and more.

Acute stress symptoms appear quickly. They often subside in a few hours but sometimes last for several days or weeks. And you can experience acute stress temporarily without developing a medical condition. Having a nasty fight with a loved one or being in a car accident are temporary — but serious — events. 

Acute stress disorder (ASD)  vs. post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

You might have noticed that acute stress disorder shares many symptoms with post-traumatic stress disorder.

While they’re both adjustment disorders, PTSD is more severe. People with this disorder are more likely to re-experience their trauma and suffer radical changes in mood and cognition. And people with PTSD generally require long-term psychotherapy and medication to cope. 

Acute stress disorders may require similar support, but only in the short term. 

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Symptoms of acute stress disorder

Acute stress disorder can manifest in many different ways — both physically and psychologically. We won’t describe all of them here, but these are some of the psychological diagnostic criteria:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Negative mood
  • Unstable emotions
  • Dissociative symptoms
  • Avoidance symptoms
  • Intrusion symptoms
  • Hypervigilance
  • Depersonalization
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Recurrent dreams
  • Dissociative amnesia
  • Flashbacks
  • Arousal symptoms
  • Reckless behavior
  • Substance use
  • Emotional numbness

These acute stress disorder symptoms can be very distressing but are normal when coping with a traumatic event.

Men-not-being-able-to-sleep-acute-stress

People may also experience physical symptoms of acute stress disorder, like:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal pains
  • Difficult breathing

These physical symptoms are caused in part by the natural stress response of your body. An adrenaline rush can lead to sweating, a faster heartbeat, and increased blood pressure. Afterward, you might experience adrenal fatigue with its own list of additional symptoms.

What are acute stressors?

Acute stressors are events that cause a sudden rush of stress and adrenaline. These are usually traumatic, meaning they cause psychological, spiritual, emotional, or physical harm.

You don’t have to directly experience a traumatic event to develop acute stress. You might have witnessed something traumatic or lived it vicariously through others.

Here are some of the main causes: 

  • Physical pain or injury, like a car accident
  • The threat of death or serious injury
  • Witnessing a death
  • Living through a natural disaster
  • Experiencing war
  • Sudden death of a loved one
  • Terrorism
  • Rape/sexual assault
  • Domestic abuse
  • Serious illness

Stressed-men-holding-glasses-acute-stress

If you’re currently coping with acute stress, a mental health professional or coach can help you navigate your feelings. Together, you can set realistic goals and create boundaries to manage your stress.

Risk factors for acute stress disorder

Not everyone is at equal risk of developing acute stress disorder. Risk factors for this condition include:

  • The severity of the trauma
  • Having a previous traumatic experience
  • Witnessing a traumatic event
  • Knowing someone who experienced a traumatic event
  • A history of abuse
  • Family history of PTSD or depression
  • Poor coping skills
  • Lack of social support
  • Chronic stress
  • Pre-existing mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression
  • A history of dissociation when reacting to traumatic events

Women and people under 40 years old are also at higher risk of developing this disorder. The highest proportion of acute stress diagnoses occurs among people in their late teens and early twenties. Diagnoses gradually taper off as patients get older.

How to prevent acute stress disorder

Considering the above risk factors, you can prevent or minimize your acute stress disorder in several ways. Here are some to consider:

  1. Consult a doctor or a mental health professional immediately after the traumatic event. These professionals are trained to help people in exactly your situation. There’s no shame in asking them for help.
  2. Seek support from family members and/or friends. Your loved ones know you best. If you feel safe talking to them, they can be a good sounding board to process your feelings.
  3. Treat your other mental health disorders. It’s important to treat your underlying mental health conditions. Of course, this is only possible if you have access to a mental health professional. Treating these conditions will help you be more resilient in case of a traumatic event. If you see a professional, they might also prescribe you medications that can help.
  4. Work with a coach to develop healthier coping mechanisms. Coaches can help you find new ways to regulate your emotions.
  5. Ask for proper training in high-risk jobs. Some jobs have a high risk of exposure to traumatic events. If you’re in this situation, ask your employer what kind of mental health support or training is available.
  6. Help reduce or stop traumatic incidents in your community. Advocate for stronger community support or fight for educational programs against violence, You can also join the health and safety committee at work. By reducing the likelihood of traumatic events, you reduce the likelihood of acute stress disorder.

Female-checking-with-a-female-doctor-acute-stress

How to treat acute stress disorder

If you have acute stress disorder, you may not need treatment. It’s common for people with this disorder to have their symptoms subside relatively quickly allowing them to return to everyday life.

But to prevent long-term PTSD, there are things you can do:

Psychiatric evaluation

A person trained in psychiatry will work to identify your needs. They’ll ask you questions to better understand your personal life, behavior, thoughts and feelings, and current coping strategies. They can also provide you with a diagnosis of acute stress disorder.

Hospitalization

If you think you’re at risk of suicide or harming others, you can go to an emergency room. Staff there  can help you through this crisis.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, CBT is usually the first line of treatment for people with acute stress disorder. This method involves talking with a trained mental health professional to process your thoughts and emotions and develop coping strategies.

Medications

A doctor may prescribe you medications to help you cope with your disorder.

For example, beta-blockers can help relieve some of your physical symptoms. They aren’t addictive and don’t cause drowsiness. Diazepam is also an option. This medication falls within the benzodiazepine family. Since it’s both addictive, and loses its effect after a few days, it’s very rarely used.

If you’re experiencing depression, doctors may also consider prescribing antidepressants.

Mindfulness

When your thoughts become overwhelming, you might start breathing heavily and feel your heart pounding. These symptoms are an evolutionary response to dangerous situations. Through mindful breathing, you remind your brain that you’re not in danger — thus calming your thoughts and body.

Exposure-based therapies

These therapies gently reintroduce you to things, activities, or situations that cause fear or anxiety. Therapists and psychologists use this technique to treat stress-related disorders and phobias.

Sick-patient-receiving-medication-acute-stress

Acute stress in the workplace

It’s important to remember that, even though your life has many compartments, your emotions go with you everywhere. Acute stress can bleed between your work and home life. 

Toxic bosses, aggressive clients, and shoddy safety conditions can all cause trauma, mental fatigue, or burnout. Over time, this might erode your self-confidence and affect your personal relationships.

And even if you have a healthy work environment, external acute stress events can make your job more difficult. If you’ve just experienced a stressful event, it’s important to ease back into everyday life.

If you need help getting back to normal, don’t worry. BetterUp is here. Our coaches will help you plan your return, develop stress-management techniques, and support you every step of the way.

When to seek the help of an expert

Remember, it’s okay to ask for help. If your feelings are overwhelming, you feel suicidal, or you think you might harm others, look for mental health resources in your area.

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Published September 5, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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