Acute stress disorder after trauma: symptoms and treatment

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Acute stress disorder after trauma: symptoms and treatment


Trauma leaves an indelible impression on many people. Those who are confronted with traumatic events such as war, a car accident, rape or death can experience an acute stress disorder or psychological shock. This stress response lasts at least three days and disappears within a month. It is important to recognize and treat the condition early so that it does not progress to post-traumatic stress disorder.

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To be diagnosed with acute stress disorder, symptoms must last for at least three days. They disappear within a month of a traumatic experience. If someone still shows symptoms after this period, it is said to be post-traumatic stress disorder.

The symptoms of acute stress disorder can be divided into five categories. A patient is diagnosed if he or she has nine or more symptoms from these categories:
  • Intrusive symptoms: involuntary and painful memories of the trauma, recurrent unpleasant dreams, flashbacks, altered negative response to stimuli reminiscent of the trauma.
  • Symptoms of negative mood: inability to experience positive emotions such as happiness or love, depressed state of mind.
  • Dissociative symptoms: delayed perception of time, seeing oneself from an outsider’s perspective, being in a daze.
  • Avoidance symptoms: Avoidance of memories, thoughts, feelings, people, or places associated with the trauma.
  • Arousal: Difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritable behavior or concentration problems, exaggerated startle reactions, anxiety, hypersensitivity.
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Causes and risk factors

About 80 percent of the population will experience a traumatic event at some point. In 15 to 20 percent, this results in an acute stress disorder. Much depends on the person, the context and the nature of the event. In the case of very drastic events, such as rape or a terrorist attack, 75 percent develop an acute stress disorder.

Why only a specific proportion of people develop the condition after trauma is not clear. People with a diagnosis of another mental illness may be more susceptible. So are individuals with avoidant coping strategies or if they have a history of previous trauma. Women are also more at risk of acute stress disorder than men.

Read also: Stress: symptoms and health consequences


You have to process a traumatic event. There are no ready-made remedies for this. It takes time and effort. It is very important that you can talk to those around you about what happened to you. Professional psychological help is often also needed. A psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnose acute stress disorder and provide you with the best possible support, so that the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder is reduced.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR are effective techniques for mental illness. EMDR was even developed specifically to treat trauma. Through rapid eye movements, the psychologist intervenes on emotions related to the trauma. Sometimes medication is also given to relieve the symptoms, such as tranquilizers or antidepressants.

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Last updated: March 2023

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