Acute stress disorder

Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a psychological reaction some people have when they go through a really shocking or threatening experience. Find out more about what acute stress disorder is, what can cause it, it's signs and symptoms, and what you can do about it.

This can help if:

  • You have been through something traumatic recently or know someone who has
  • You’ve been feeling anxious and/or not yourself since
  • You want to learn more about what acute stress disorder is and how to manage it

What is acute stress disorder?

Acute stress disorder (ASD) is where seeing or experiencing something traumatic makes you really upset and anxious for a while (three days or more), and this starts to have a big impact on your life. Experiencing or witnessing something disturbing or threatening is obviously really tough for anyone, and it’s normal to have a hard time dealing with it straight after. 

The kinds of things that people might react this way to are:

  • Being physically or sexually attacked
  • Being in an accident
  • Disasters like floods or bushfires

Acute stress disorder is similar to another disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but ASD is where it lasts a month or less, whereas with PTSD, the symptoms keep happening for longer. While some people who have ASD will develop PTSD, lots of people don’t, and tackling the problem early can prevent this.

What causes acute stress disorder?

Although part of the definition of this disorder is that it’s triggered by having something traumatic happen, not everyone who goes through a trauma will get ASD.

Some things that can make someone more likely to have ASD are:

  • Having had another traumatic experience before
  • Having, or having had, another psychological disorder
  • Having other stressful stuff happening in their life at the same time

Your genetics can also have an effect. While you can’t inherit ASD specifically, you can inherit a tendency to be a bit more anxious than others, which can make you more likely to have ASD.

What are the signs and symptoms?

 If you have acute stress disorder, some things you might experience are:

  • Memories of the traumatic event coming into your mind without you meaning to think about it
  • Having nightmares about it
  • Flashbacks, where you feel like it’s happening all over again
  • Feeling a bit ‘blah’, and not enjoying things you usually would
  • Feeling a bit out of it
  • Feeling like you’re outside yourself – kind of like you’re an observer looking on
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Feeling irritable and getting angry more than usual
  • Feeling on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Avoiding places, people, etc that might remind you of the trauma

Managing acute stress disorder

Even though you might not feel like it, it’s really important to keep doing fun stuff when you’re going through a tough time, especially stuff that involves mates or family who can give you good support. Keeping up, or getting back into, a regular routine with things like eating, sleeping, and exercise also helps.

If you are worried about someone who may be suffering from ASD, you can help by encouraging them to keep doing fun things, and also reminding them that the way they are feeling now will not last forever.

Sometimes the symptoms of ASD go away without treatment once the person has had some time to process things and get back to normal life, but not always. A good plan is to go to your GP for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional, who can help you overcome ASD. One treatment they might use is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can help you process the trauma and reduce your anxiety. It can also change the way you think about the trauma, which may be causing you distress.

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 04 May, 2016
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