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Acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are mental health conditions that can occur when someone experiences a traumatic event. Learn to look for the signs of acute stress and PTSD, and if you think you suffer from either, it’s probably a good idea to seek support from a mental health professional.

This can help if:

  • you’ve been through a traumatic event
  • the effects of a traumatic event are impacting your everyday life
  • you want to know the difference between a ‘normal’ response to trauma, acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Girl looking at water

What is acute stress disorder?

Acute stress disorder occurs when a person has an ‘extreme’ reaction after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, or hearing that a traumatic event has happened to a family member or friend. Everyone responds to trauma differently, and it’s common to feel a range of different emotions. However, acute stress disorder in response to an event impacts a person’s ability to return to everyday life. A person is diagnosed with acute stress disorder when their response to a trauma is immediate – that is, it occurs between three days and a month after the event.

Symptoms of acute stress disorder (and PTSD) include:

  • Flashbacks’, such as vivid memories, dreams, or feeling like you’re re-experiencing the event
  • Low mood, where it’s difficult to experience any positive emotions
  • Changes in thoughts and beliefs about the world, yourself or others (e.g. ‘The world is unsafe’, ‘I’m no good’)
  • Dissociation, or difficulty in remembering parts of the event, or feeling ‘detached’ from reality
  • Avoiding thoughts and feelings about the event and trying to stay away from things that remind you of it, including places and people
  • Feeling ‘on edge’ and finding it difficult to relax, sleep or concentrate

What is PTSD?

A person is diagnosed with PTSD when their extreme reaction to trauma lasts for over a month, or is delayed (symptoms don’t come on until months after the trauma). PTSD may also occur in people who experience trauma over a long period of time (e.g. war veterans, police officers, paramedics).

What causes acute stress disorder or PTSD?

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop acute stress disorder or PTSD, and most people are able to recover from trauma over time. There is no one, single cause of acute stress disorder or PTSD; however, it likely develops due to a range of environmental and genetic factors. A person who has previously experienced trauma, or has another mental health disorder, or is experiencing other stressful events will have a higher chance of developing acute stress disorder or PTSD.

What help is available?

Although there are things you can do following a traumatic experience to help you cope, if you’re experiencing some of the symptoms listed above, and are struggling to get back into your daily routine, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional. The first step you can take is to contact your GP to discuss the best options for you. They might refer you to a clinical psychologist, who can offer you strategies and skills to help with processing the trauma. Your doctor may also suggest that you see a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medication to help ease your symptoms.

It can be difficult to talk about a traumatic experience even when you’ve decided to seek help. Ask a friend or family member to come along with you to your GP for support, or write down how you feel and how your life is being impacted. Remember that mental health professionals have a lot of experience of working with people who have suffered from trauma and will understand if you might not be ready to talk about everything right away.

What can I do now?

  • Talk to someone you trust and let them know you need help.
  • Make an appointment with your GP.
  • Read more about common responses to trauma.
  • Continue with a routine: get up each day, do something you enjoy, get some exercise and eat healthily.