PTSD vs. Acute Stress Disorder


If you’re ever faced with a traumatic experience, the effects can linger for months or years to come. For example, being involved in a car accident can lead to psychological symptoms that persist for long after the accident itself. 

When you survive anything that’s traumatic, you may have a hard time processing your feelings, and you might not be able to move past what’s known as your automatic stress response. 

There are two disorders that can occur. The first is acute stress disorder, and the second is a post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are overlaps between the two, but also some differences. 

More than half of people in the U.S. will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. 

What Is Considered a Traumatic Event?

A traumatic event can be anything that causes someone harm, whether that be emotional, spiritual, psychological, or physical. Traumatic events cause distress, and they often stem from someone experiencing a situation where they’re highly afraid or feel physically threatened. 

Traumatic events include natural disasters, being injured, serious illness, war, terrorism, witnessing a death, domestic abuse, or rape. 

Initially, when we’re faced with a traumatic event, we might feel extreme shock and sometimes denial. Depending on the situation, you may not fully understand the intensity of the event right away. 

It can take weeks after the event to get beyond that initial shock. 

Then, once you do, your response can vary. 

Responses can include withdrawal or isolation, irritability, mood shifts, or repeated memories or flashbacks. 

What Is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder can refer to the symptoms you experience right after or shortly after a traumatic event. 

Signs of acute stress disorder include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Dissociation, which means detaching from yourself
  • Dissociative amnesia, meaning you have a hard time remembering event details
  • Problems sleeping
  • Hypervigilance
  • Avoiding things that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Concentration problems

When you have symptoms of acute stress disorder, it can affect your academic or work functioning, your relationships, and your quality of life. 

For most people, symptoms of acute stress disorder last up to four weeks. The initial onset of this condition is within four weeks of the triggering event. 

Acute stress disorder is the distress that you experience psychologically just a short time from a traumatic event. 

If someone has ASD, treatment options include cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and medication. 

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD can occur later on after the event as compared to acute stress disorder. PTSD is diagnosed after symptoms have been occurring for more than a month. 

One big difference between acute stress disorder and PTSD is that PTSD symptoms can develop as long as months or even years after the traumatic event. 

PTSD can occur after acute stress disorder, but it can also eventually occur even if you never had any symptoms of ASD. 

PTSD symptoms are usually divided into four categories. 

Intrusive symptoms are ones that can create a strong reaction and they include dreams, flashbacks, and memories. 

Negative mood symptoms include feeling bad in some way. Negative mood feelings can also include losing interest in activities you once enjoyed. 

Avoidance symptoms in PTSD are common because you may not want to face what is distressing to you. That could mean you start to avoid people, places, or things that bring about your traumatic memories. 

The fourth category of PTSD symptoms is called hyperarousal symptoms. This can include being hypervigilant or generally edgy, irritability, having angry outbursts, problems concentrating, or sleeplessness. 

How Are ASD and PTSD Different?

Acute stress and disorder and PTSD aren’t necessarily different at the core. They share essentially the same symptoms, and they are both a response you could have to an experience that’s traumatic. The big difference is the duration of each of the disorders and when they begin. 

Basically, ASD is short-term, and PTSD is longer-term. It’s also worth noting that even though there are connections between the two, having acute stress disorder doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to go on to develop PTSD. 

It’s important if you’re experiencing any symptoms of ASD or PTSD that you talk to a health care professional sooner rather than later. 

The earlier you receive treatment, the more likely you can get your disorder under control. For example, if you have ASD, getting treatment can help prevent it from becoming PTSD. If you don’t receive treatment, the disorders can become chronic, and it can be more difficult to treat them over time. As is the case with other untreated chronic conditions, complications can also occur such as depression or substance abuse.



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