What Is Acute Stress Disorder?

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Acute stress disorder is a psychological condition that is caused by experiencing a traumatic event. This traumatic event might have happened to you directly, for instance being involved in a car accident, or you might have witnessed it happen to a close friend or family member.

Between approximately 14% and 33% of people who experience a severely traumatic event develop acute stress disorder.

This condition typically lasts for about a month; however, if its symptoms linger for longer than a month, it’s classified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This means that in some instances, acute stress disorder could be viewed as a precursor to PTSD. By some estimates, around half of the people diagnosed with acute stress disorder are likely to develop PTSD.  

The symptoms of acute stress disorder and PTSD are very similar. The best way to tell them apart is by observing the time frame it takes for the symptoms to show. While with acute stress disorder, symptoms might start to show between three days to one month after the traumatic event occurred, with PTSD, it’s longer.

Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder 

Symptoms of acute stress disorder are very similar to symptoms of PTSD. In general, they tend to fall under these categories:  

Intrusion Symptoms 

These are symptoms that invade your mind with no warning and can prevent you from functioning.

They include:

Avoidance Symptoms 

Symptoms of avoidance typically include: 

  • Avoiding any thoughts or memories of the traumatic event 
  • Avoiding people or places that might remind you of the traumatic event. Doing this often leads to self-isolation.

Dissociative Symptoms 

These symptoms are characterized by emotional detachment.

Some examples include: 

  • Experiencing dissociative amnesia (a condition in which you can't recall some information)
  • Feeling detached from your emotions 

Arousal Symptoms 

Arousal symptoms are more physical symptoms than those in other categories. They are also more likely to interfere with your daily functioning.

Some include: 

  • Finding it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep 
  • Getting distracted easily
  • Reacting strongly to the smallest of triggers in environments that remind you of the traumatic event 
  • Being highly alert to your surroundings 
  • Angering easily even with little to no provocation 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) provides that you must have exhibited at least nine of the above symptoms after being exposed to a traumatic event for you to be diagnosed with acute stress disorder.

Diagnosing Acute Stress Disorder 

Before you can be diagnosed with acute stress disorder your doctor or healthcare provider must first rule out any physical injury or drug/substance use as a causing factor.

According to the DSM-5, the following criteria must be met before someone is diagnosed with acute stress disorder:

  • Being exposed to or witnessing a traumatic event
  • Experiencing flashbacks of the traumatic events, dissociative, anxiety, arousal, and avoidance symptoms (at least 9 of the 14 symptoms in these categories are required to be present). 
  • Having experienced symptoms of acute stress disorder for a period lasting between three days and one month
  • Symptoms should be severe enough to cause functional impairment and interfere with your usual way of life
  • The symptoms are not a result of another medical condition or substance/drug/medication

Although acute stress disorder is a mental condition, it could also manifest physically. The disorder has been linked to the development of tachycardia, which simply means that your heart rate is abnormally fast. You could also present an abnormal MRI (brain imaging scan) in certain scenarios.

A physical examination and a look into your medical history will be conducted before a diagnosis of acute stress disorder can be made.

If symptoms of acute stress disorder are present for more than a month, then it’s classified as PTSD.

Causes of Acute Stress Disorder 

Acute stress disorder is caused by either experiencing a traumatic event directly or witnessing a traumatic event. Some examples of traumatic events that could trigger acute stress disorder include: 

  • Witnessing a shooting 
  • Being involved in a car accident 
  • Fighting in a war 
  • Being physically or sexually assaulted
  • Witnessing the sudden death of a loved one or the violent death of a stranger 
  • Experiencing a near-death experience 
  • Living through a natural disaster 

Research estimates that nearly one-sixth of people who survive car accidents are likely to develop acute stress disorder. Certain risk factors also make it more likely for certain people to develop acute stress disorder. Some of the risk factors include:

  • You are biologically female 
  • The traumatic event is very severe 
  • Having an avoidant personality
  • Exposure to other traumatic events in the past 
  • Having a history of mental health conditions prior to the traumatic event

Treatment for Acute Stress Disorder 

Treatment for acute stress disorder typically involves the use of medication and psychotherapy. These two forms of treatment might either be used alternatively or together, depending on the severity of your symptoms. 


Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common forms of psychotherapy used for people with acute stress disorder. It’s typically used when the person is no longer exposed to the traumatic event and is experiencing some stability in their life.

With CBT, you are taught to deal with the effects of the traumatic event and how to avoid your triggers. Additional types of effective psychotherapy include cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure (PE).

Some research shows that CBT is the most effective therapy in the treatment of acute stress disorder and preventing PTSD.


The use of medication isn’t typically the first line of treatment considered when treating acute stress disorder. However, in some severe cases, it might be used alongside psychotherapy.

Medications commonly prescribed to treat symptoms of acute stress disorder include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), benzodiazepines, hydrocortisone, and propranolol.

Coping With Acute Stress Disorder 

Acute stress disorder is a rather distressing condition that can disrupt your daily functioning. In some instances, if left untreated, it can develop into PTSD.

Getting an early diagnosis and seeking treatment immediately is essential to avoid this.

Here are other tips to help you cope with this condition:

  • Don’t neglect your physical health. Remember to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. 
  • Surround yourself with family and loved ones. It’s essential to feel safe after a traumatic event has occurred.

Acute stress disorder is a short-term condition. This means that with the proper treatment, you may begin to feel some relief from your symptoms. Some people can even recover on their own. However, it’s advisable to seek treatment once you notice any symptoms of the condition to make sure your symptoms don't worsen.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.