Acute stress disorder is characterized as a mental health condition that impacts an individual’s ability to function for a period of up to one month. Typically, if people experience symptoms of acute stress disorder for longer than one month, the diagnosis switches to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). High-stress levels from experiencing trauma can lead to the development of acute stress disorder or PTSD. Because there are many similarities between the two disorders, there are a few myths and misconceptions surrounding acute stress disorder that must be addressed.
1. Myth: Everyone who experiences trauma will develop acute stress disorder.
Fact: Not everyone who directly experiences trauma develops acute stress disorder.
Acute stress disorder and trauma are directly related to one another. An individual develops acute stress disorder due to experiencing a traumatic event. How trauma impacts an individual is completely subjective. The vast majority of individuals who experience trauma will not go on to develop acute stress disorder or PTSD. However, typical traumatic events that can bring about acute stress disorder include:
- A shooting
- A car accident
- A traumatic brain injury
- Assault and sexual assault
- Industrial accidents
- An emergency landing during a flight
- The sudden or unexpected death of a loved one
Depending on the type of trauma experienced, it is estimated that between 6% and 33% of individuals develop acute stress disorder following a traumatic experience. Typically, people that experienced an interpersonal assault have a higher prevalence of acute stress disorder relative to individuals that experienced other traumas. Thus, not everyone that experiences a traumatic event develops acute stress disorder.
2. Myth: Acute stress disorder always leads to PTSD.
Fact: Just because a person is diagnosed with acute stress disorder does not mean they will develop PTSD.
PTSD and acute stress disorder are related, but technically separate, conditions. What distinguishes acute stress disorder from PTSD? Acute stress disorder is generally diagnosed when a patient exhibits symptoms as early as three days after a traumatic event and no later than four weeks after an event. PTSD is diagnosed when an individual either exhibits symptoms later than one month after an event or experiences a delay in the onset of symptoms. Since the symptoms of both conditions overlap, the length of time that symptoms occur may be the only distinguishing factor between the two.
In a study conducted in 2011, acute stress disorder was found to be predictive of developing PTSD. This study only established an association between a diagnosis of acute stress disorder and future diagnosis of PTSD, but not causation. Nevertheless, individuals can develop PTSD without first developing acute stress disorder.
3. Myth: Acute stress disorder is a chronic condition.
Fact: Acute stress disorder is not a chronic or long-term condition.
An acute condition is defined as a condition that rapidly develops and can be relative to other long-term conditions. A chronic condition is defined as a long-term condition or one that takes a long time to develop. Thus, the duration of acute stress disorder is quite short relative to other mental health conditions. Acute stress disorder develops rapidly after experiencing a traumatic experience, whereas PTSD can develop months after an event.
Typical symptoms associated with acute stress disorder include:
- Concentration problems that develop soon after a traumatic event
- Feeling overwhelmed after an event
- Feeling more negative emotions than positive emotions after an event
- Not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep since the event
- Making impulsive decisions since the event
- Becoming more reactive, even in non-dangerous situations
- Avoiding replaying the trauma in their head
- Having repetitive and stress-inducing memories of the traumatic event
- Developing anxiety or depression since the event
Of note, these symptoms will only be present for up to one month after a traumatic event. If the symptoms last longer, an individual may instead be diagnosed with PTSD.
4. Myth: Acute stress disorder is more common in men.
Fact: One of the risk factors for developing acute stress disorder is being female.
There are several risk factors associated with acute stress disorder. Many of these factors overlap with PTSD. Females experience a higher risk of developing acute stress disorder or PTSD after a traumatic event. Some other risk factors associated with acute stress disorder include:
- A person’s genetics
- Experiencing childhood trauma or abuse
- Experiencing trauma or abuse at any point in life
- Having a family history of mental illness
- Using alcohol and other drugs
- Having a dissociative disorder
- Utilizing ineffective coping strategies while under stress
- Depression or anxiety
Thus, there are specific risk factors that may make certain individuals more likely to develop stress disorders while experiencing high-stress levels from a traumatic experience.
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Bryant, Richard. “Acute Stress Disorder as a Predictor of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review.” J Clin Psychiatry, 2011. Accessed June 6, 2019. Bryant, Richard. “Acute stress disorder in adults: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical manifestations, course, and diagnosis.” UpToDate, April 12, 2019. Accessed June 6, 2019. Hsih, Katie; Mackinnon, Dean. “Acute Stress Disorder.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, July 1, 2017. Accessed June 6, 2019.
Bryant, Richard. “Acute Stress Disorder as a Predictor of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review.” J Clin Psychiatry, 2011. Accessed June 6, 2019.
Bryant, Richard. “Acute stress disorder in adults: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical manifestations, course, and diagnosis.” UpToDate, April 12, 2019. Accessed June 6, 2019.
Hsih, Katie; Mackinnon, Dean. “Acute Stress Disorder.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, July 1, 2017. Accessed June 6, 2019.