What is acute stress disorder? 

Acute stress disorder is a severe condition. It happens only for a short time — between three days and a month. You might have it after a traumatic event like witnessing or experiencing a near-death situation. It's similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it comes about after you have an experience that brings about intense fear, horror or helplessness. Up to 33% of people who live through this kind of event develop this condition. At one time, this was known as "shell shock."

Causes of acute stress disorder

Experiencing or seeing something traumatic causes acute stress disorder. When this happens to you, it can make you feel very scared, threatened, anxious or helpless and lead to the condition developing. Factors that contribute to acute stress disorder include:

  • Almost dying
  • Threat of a serious injury to yourself or another
  • Witnessing a death or the near-death of a loved one

Risk factors for acute stress disorder

Anyone can get acute stress disorder if they've experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. You're more at risk of you've been through this kind of situation in the past. If you have a history of acute stress disorder or PTSD, you're at greater risk for developing this condition. Maybe you've been in a daze and had trouble connecting with people around you after a traumatic event. If so, you may also be at greater risk.

Symptoms of acute stress disorder

The symptoms of acute stress disorder must happen for at least three days. They start no more than a month after you experience trauma. If the symptoms last longer than a month, you may be diagnosed with PTSD. People with this condition often feel overwhelming guilt about the traumatic event. Panic attacks often happen with this condition. This is a sudden, strong feeling of fear along with uncomfortable physical symptoms. Children with this condition may show signs of anxiety, too.

Other symptoms include:

  • Feeling very negative and having trouble finding joy in otherwise pleasurable things
  • Thinking repeatedly about difficult and upsetting memories of the event
  • Wanting to avoid anything that has to do with the traumatic experience
  • Problems concentrating
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Being in a daze
  • Irritability 

Diagnosis of acute stress disorder

If you're having any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor. They can discuss the situation with you. They might do a physical exam to make sure the symptoms aren't from medications you're taking or other health problems. Your doctor may refer you to a mental health professional for a final diagnosis. During this time, it's important to not self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Be sure to talk with your doctor honestly. Your mental health professional can interview you and see if your symptoms meet the criteria for acute stress disorder.

Treatments for acute stress disorder

If the condition is severe, it's possible your therapist or doctor may determine you're suicidal or a threat to others. In this case, the first step of treatment may be hospitalization. This can help you become more stable. In the hospital, you can have a full mental exam if you haven't had one already.

Education and support are important parts of the treatment process. Getting help and understanding this condition can calm your fears and help you heal. Therapy can be a successful way to treat acute stress disorder. Talk to your doctor about what type of therapy might work well for you. There are different kinds. You might that find one is more helpful than another.

Recovery from acute stress disorder

There's no way to prevent acute stress disorder. You're most likely to recover if you talk with your doctor as soon as you start to feel symptoms again. Remember what to look for in order to get treatment quickly.

This condition only lasts for a month. So, a major goal of recovery is to strengthen your coping skills to prevent future incidents. This means you may reduce your chances of having the disorder again. Work closely with your doctor and therapist. They can help you make sure your disorder doesn't worsen. Consider stress-reduction techniques such as meditation and yoga, too.