Acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorders

Acute stress disorder (ASD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are mental health conditions that can occur when someone experiences a traumatic event. Treatments for these conditions are effective and can include psychological and medical interventions.

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 understand the possible effects of trauma, and learn more about ASD and PTSD.

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Everyone responds to trauma differently, and it’s common to feel a range of different emotions, from fear and grief, to anger. For some, an unsettling or life-threatening event may impact their ability to return to everyday life.

What is acute stress disorder (ASD)?

ASD may be diagnosed within days or weeks after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. The symptoms begin within a month of the occurrence of the event and may last anywhere from three days to a month.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD may be diagnosed if symptoms are experienced, or continue to be experienced, more than a month following the traumatic event. PTSD may occur after a single event, or after experiencing repeated traumas over a long period of time (e.g. war veterans, police officers, paramedics).

Signs and symptoms of ASD and PTSD

ASD and PTSD share common symptoms, and what differentiates them is the duration of the symptoms. Symptoms are of four kinds:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma: This happens through flashbacks, vivid memories and nightmares. There may be intense emotional or physical reactions, such as heart palpitations, sweating or panic, when reminded of the event.

  • Avoiding reminders of the event: The person deliberately avoids thoughts, feelings, activities, places and people that they associate with the event.

  • Negative changes in mood and thoughts: The person feels low or numb, and no longer enjoys their favourite activities and hobbies. It’s common to feel detached from reality, to have difficulty remembering things (including the event), and to feel guilty, angry or fearful.

  • Increased anxiety and easily wound up: The person may feel ‘on edge’ or jumpy, and find it difficult to relax, sleep or concentrate. They might also be irritable or prone to angry outbursts.

What causes ASD or PTSD?

Exposure to a traumatic event can be direct (if a person personally experienced or witnessed the event) or indirect (if a person learns or hears of a distressing or life-threatening event that happened to someone close to them).

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop ASD or PTSD, and most people are able to recover from trauma over time. A person who has previously experienced trauma, or has other mental health difficulties, or is experiencing other stressful events, may have a higher chance of developing ASD or PTSD.

Traumatic events that can lead to ASD and PTSD include:

  • car accidents

  • sexual assault

  • physical attacks or threats

  • war, terrorism or torture

  • natural disasters

  • death or serious injury.

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 experienced trauma and will understand if you might not be ready to talk about everything right away.

Check out the Blue Knot Foundation for more information about ASD and PTSD, and for suggestions for coping with or treating it.

What can I do now?