Characteristics of Acute Stress Disorders

Being in an accident or witnessing one, being victimized, and the death of a family member, among others, are experiences that seriously impact the brain. Some can completely change your life and affect your psychological health forever, manifesting as acute stress disorders.
Characteristics of Acute Stress Disorders
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

Few people are left unscathed after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. The mind receives the impact and feels the consequences. Thus, there are disturbances after a few days or weeks. Psychology refers to these as acute stress disorders. Although you may not be aware of it, everyone experiences trauma at some point during their lives.

No one is free from mental health problems. In fact, this type of disorder is possibly one of the most common. You may experience it when a loved one dies or when you witness a bad accident. Being the victim of an assault is also a factor.

Each person processes this type of experience differently. Also, some people have strategies for dealing with traumatic events. On average, it’s quite common for it to derive in states of high emotional wear, intense anxiety, sleep disturbances, behavioral changes, and emotional ups and downs.

A person seated by the sea.

Acute stress disorders – symptoms, causes, and coping strategies

Acute stress disorders usually occur when a person goes through a major event. However, this situation can be complicated if you don’t properly address it. Thus, you’re at risk of losing your mind if you don’t seek expert help.

Studies such as the one conducted at the University of New South Wales by Dr. Richard Bryant indicate that it’s crucial for a person diagnosed with acute stress disorder to receive adequate treatment. It’s the only way to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This clinical category emerged during World War I. However, they referred to it as shell shock back then. This term sort of described a reality in which the experiences on the battlefield were similar to projectiles aimed directly at the brains of young soldiers. Explosions on the central nervous system left them despondent and with a rather altered state of mind.


A person has acute stress disorder when they suffer a series of physical and psychological manifestations for at least three days in a row after experiencing a traumatic experience. It’s important to know they’re facing post-traumatic stress disorder if their symptoms last more than one month.

This is some of the criteria the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) uses to make a diagnosis:

  • Intrusive thoughts. A person has constant gripping memories in the form of flashbacks. These intrusive memories torment them and often appear in their dreams.
  • Symptoms associated with the state of mind. These manifest as anguish, fear, and constant distress.
  • Dissociative symptoms. A person often experiences a sense of not being present, of not believing something horrible actually happened. In addition, time seems to slow down and they may feel as if they’re suspended in it.
  • Arousal. Trouble sleeping and concentrating, difficulty making decisions, and difficulty connecting with friends, family, and partners.
  • Avoidance behavior. It’s common for a person who’s just experienced something traumatic to try not to think to avoid what they saw and felt.

What are the causes of acute stress disorders?

Not everyone who goes through a traumatic experience will develop an acute stress disorder. In fact, mainly those who previously suffered from a psychological disorder (such as depression) develop it more frequently. Also, those with an avoidant coping style or who’ve suffered previous trauma are more likely to develop one.

Similarly, you must understand the central nervous system in order to understand the mechanism of acute stress disorder.

  • Your body activates an automatic fight or flight response when you experience a frightening or threatening event.
  • This type of disorder is an evolutionary mechanism that allows humans to survive dangerous situations.
  • These are intense experiences in which the nervous system releases excessive amounts of adrenaline and norepinephrine. These hormones cause tachycardias, alertness, fear, muscular pains, etc.
  • The most striking part is that not only do humans tend to remember a traumatic event over and over again. We also fear something like it will happen again. The anguish increases and there are perceived threats everywhere. Any stimulus is terrifying and the mind remains captive to the bad experience.
A person talking to a therapist.

Treatment for acute stress disorders

A person must undergo therapy to avoid more exhausting and even chronic states after an acute stress disorder diagnosis. At least, studies like the one conducted at the University of Bergen (Norway) support the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Strategies such as cognitive restructuring, relaxation techniques, and imaginary or live exposure facilitate progress and improvement in many of these patients.

To conclude, keep in mind that everyone goes through a traumatic experience at some point in their lives. Thus, you must seek help in order to manage its impact, attenuate the symptoms, and learn some coping strategies. You just can’t do some things alone.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Bryant, R. A. (2018, December 1). The Current Evidence for Acute Stress Disorder. Current Psychiatry Reports. Current Medicine Group LLC 1.
  • Kornør, Hege; Winje, Dagfinn; Ekeberg, Øivind; Weisæth, Lars; Kirkehei, Ingvild; Johansen, Kjell; Steiro, Asbjørn (September 2008). “Early trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy to prevent chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and related symptoms: A systematic review and meta-analysis”. BMC Psychiatry8: 8. doi:10.1186/1471-244x-8-8

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.