Acute Stress Disorder vs. PTSD: What’s the Difference?
Many people are familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder. However, another diagnosis connected to trauma, acute stress disorder, is not as well known. Both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder (ASD) develop from trauma. One can develop either condition after witnessing traumatic events in their community, witnessing a traumatic event involving a loved one, being the victim of a traumatic event such as assault, or being involved in an accident where a friend or loved one loses their life. These disorders share similar symptoms, but there are differences between the conditions and in how their symptoms affect your physical and emotional health.
What is Acute Stress Disorder?
Acute stress disorder or ASD is an anxiety disorder that develops in the days and weeks immediately following a traumatic event. Symptoms of acute stress disorder typically occur within one month of the event. Symptoms of acute stress disorder are similar to those seen in people who develop post-traumatic stress disorder. However, acute stress disorder symptoms will last between three days and up to one month before resolving, usually without the need for mental health intervention.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder?
The symptoms of acute stress disorder include a combination of dissociative symptoms, anxiety, avoidance, distress, and reexperiencing. Diagnostic criteria for acute stress disorder indicate you must have three dissociative symptoms. Examples of these symptoms include feeling numb or emotionally responsive, reduced awareness of your surroundings, depersonalization, derealization, and dissociative amnesia.
Diagnosis of acute stress disorder also requires one or more reexperiencing symptoms. Reexperiencing happens in several ways, including recurring thoughts, nightmares, illusions, and flashbacks. For some, situations that remind them of the event can lead to reexperiencing. For this reason, people with acute stress disorder will actively attempt to avoid things that are reminders of their trauma. This may include going out of your way to avoid places, objects, people, and places.
Other common symptoms of acute stress disorder include difficulties sleeping and concentrating, an elevated startle reflex, irritability, inability to sit still or relax, and significant distress during everyday aspects of your daily life. Struggles with acute stress disorder can lead to challenges at home, work, or managing necessary tasks.
Acute Stress Disorder Causes and Risk Factors
The causes of acute stress disorder closely mimic other trauma conditions. You may develop acute stress disorder after witnessing, experiencing, or otherwise being confronted with a traumatic event or situation. Data from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs indicates between six and thirty-three percent of people who experience trauma will develop acute stress disorder.
Acute stress disorder can develop in anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. You are also at risk of developing acute stress disorder if you have a history of certain mental health conditions, have experienced past trauma, or have a history of acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that develops after trauma. Trauma comes in many forms. Common examples include events from childhood such as neglect, abuse, or losing a parent. Trauma may also occur after experiencing, witnessing, or learning about significant or harmful events like violence, abuse, or a natural disaster. Trauma does not need to affect you individually to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people struggle with PTSD symptoms after learning about a negative or traumatic experience of a friend or loved one.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of PTSD?
Struggles with PTSD can occur in people of all ages. In many cases, the symptoms of PTSD will look similar across most age groups. Someone experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms will feel like it is impossible to avoid remembering their trauma. With PTSD, the visions and memories of the event that led to trauma symptoms will replay as if on repeat both day and night regardless of how hard one tries to ignore the memory.
To avoid reliving their trauma or experiencing the emotions associated with the event, someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder will actively attempt to avoid anything that might worsen their symptoms. This often involves consciously avoiding places, people, or other situations that could trigger a memory of the event. Reliving also occurs at night in the form of nightmares and vivid dreams that feel very real. Nightmares and dreams often lead to difficulties sleeping and making functioning in one’s day-to-day environment challenging.
PTSD symptoms affect everyone in different ways. However, the most common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder occur (at varying levels of severity) across most cases. The
The most common symptoms of these include:
- Difficulties with focusing at home, work, or school.
- Acting out in aggressive or impulsive ways.
- Expressing or appearing emotionally “numb.”
- Struggling with flashbacks or nightmares.
- Feeling frequent anxiety
- Engaging in avoidance measures
- Displaying hypervigilance or being constantly “on guard.”
- Experiencing hyperreactivity to everyday sounds such as slamming doors or clapping hands.
PTSD Causes and Risk Factors
There are several potential causes of post-traumatic stress disorder. Generally, PTSD develops after someone is directly exposed to trauma, either as a witness or victim of an event. Trauma means different things for everyone, and therefore, what leads to PTSD for one person, may not be traumatic for another. Common examples of events that may lead to PTSD include natural disasters, illness, abuse, serious injury, assault, and acts of terrorism.
What’s the Difference Between Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD?
The primary differences between acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are onset and duration. When acute stress disorder develops after trauma, the symptoms appear within a few days to a few weeks. The onset of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder often takes longer to present. Also, acute stress disorder symptoms usually resolve independently after a few weeks, whereas post-traumatic stress disorder can be a complex challenge that lasts throughout one’s lifetime. Acute stress disorder can evolve into post-traumatic stress disorder in situations where ASD symptoms do not resolve.
Treatment for Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD
Because acute stress disorder often resolves without the need for treatment, there are few specific treatments aimed at managing ASD symptoms. However, should you choose to seek therapy to manage acute stress disorder when you notice symptoms affecting your physical and emotional health, the treatment models for ASD are nearly identical to those our treatment team at The Meadowglade uses to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The most common interventions for PTSD include psychotherapy and medications. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of behavioral therapy widely used in mental health and addiction treatment settings.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT is one of the most widely used types of psychotherapy. CBT has consistently been the most effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy has been proven to work in both short- and long-term treatment settings. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is used in a trauma-focused manner for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, which means the events specific to the trauma are the center of a treatment session.
CBT sessions also focus on helping to identify, understand, and finally, change maladaptive thinking and behavior patterns. Cognitive behavior therapy is an active form of treatment, which means the patient is highly involved and expected to engage both inside and outside of their standard “appointments.” Engagement means they are learning and practicing the skills they learned during their appointments repeatedly to help support improvement in their symptoms and limit reoccurrence.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an umbrella term for different treatment components or procedures that fall into the behavioral restructuring category. Various types of cognitive-behavioral therapy have differing amounts of exposure and cognitive intervention. This is important because what works for one person may not work well for another. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder includes exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring.
Exposure therapy helps someone struggling with trauma manage their fears by intentionally exposing them to memories or triggers of the trauma in a safe and supported setting. There are many types of exposure, and a trained professional will work with you to determine the best method to meet your needs. All forms of exposure therapy focus on gradual exposure to the trauma with the goal of reducing reaction and sensitivity with each session. This type of cognitive-behavioral therapy can be very intense and, in some cases, terrifying for the individual. Therefore the treatment must be conducted by a highly trained professional who understands post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is a type of intervention that helps people to process and make sense of their bad memories. It is not abnormal for someone to remember their trauma differently than how the actual event took place or to feel guilt and shame about aspects of their trauma that are not their fault. Cognitive restructuring aims to help you examine the event from an objective perspective and develop a realistic view of the trauma.
Unfortunately, there is no medication approved by the US Food and Drug Administration that “cures” post-traumatic stress disorder. However, medications such as anti-anxiety and antidepressants may help provide symptom relief during the early stages of treatment for some individuals. Medications are not a standalone treatment or a substitute for comprehensive therapy. When used as part of treatment, medications are used as a complement to regular therapy sessions to assist with symptom management so you can focus on the therapeutic aspects of your treatment program.
While there is no way to prevent the type of trauma that causes acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, it is possible to learn healthy and effective ways to manage symptoms of both conditions. To learn more about treatments and interventions for ASD and PTSD, contact a member of our treatment team at The Meadowglade today to learn more about our programs.