Acute Stress Disorder vs. PTSD: The Difference Between the Two

Category: Mental Health
9 minute read.

Many people have heard about post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Most have an understanding of why and how PTSD develops. But, another condition is connected to stress that is not as familiar, acute stress disorder or ASD. Both acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder evolve from traumatic experiences. It is possible to develop either condition (ASD or PTSD) after witnessing traumatic events in your community, being the victim of a traumatic event, experiencing or witnessing a loss of life, or witnessing a traumatic event or situation involving a loved one. Acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder share similar symptoms, but there are differences between the conditions and variations in how their symptoms affect your physical and emotional health.

Explaining Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly called PTSD, is a mental health condition that develops after one experiences or witnesses something traumatic. It is crucial to remember that trauma comes in many forms and affects everyone differently. Typical examples of situations or events that could cause trauma include childhood events such as losing a parent, abuse, or neglect. Trauma may also develop for adults and youth after learning about, witnessing, or directly experiencing a harmful event like abuse, violence, an act of terrorism, or a natural disaster. Remember that trauma need not affect you directly to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after learning about a traumatic experience that occurs to someone close to them.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

PTSD can develop in people of all ages, and in most cases, the visible signs of PTSD will look similar regardless of age. Someone with post-traumatic stress disorder will feel like their trauma is always there. The memories or flashbacks of the trauma will replay consistently, irrespective of how hard you try to ignore the memory.

To avoid experiencing flashbacks (reliving the event), youth and adults with PTSD will do whatever is necessary to avoid encountering a trigger that may worsen or “bring back” their symptoms. This usually means actively avoiding situations, people, or places that could act as a memory trigger. Because reliving also occurs at night leads to nightmares and frighteningly real dreams, someone with PTSD may experience difficulties sleeping and functioning in their daily environment due to fatigue.

Although symptoms of PTSD affect each person in unique ways, there are several indications of trauma that are common for someone who has developed PTSD. Examples may include frequent anxiety, aggressive or impulsive behaviors, problems at home, work, or school, flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance, hyperactivity to everyday stimuli and sounds, emotional numbness, and hypervigilance.

What Causes PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder has many potential causes. For most, PTSD symptoms occur after being exposed to trauma, either through direct exposure as a witness or victim of the event. It is important to remember that the idea of trauma is different for everyone. Therefore, a circumstance that leads to a trauma response for one person may not be traumatic for someone else. Examples of events that may cause PTSD include assault, acts of violence or terrorism, natural disasters, illness, abuse, and severe injury.

What is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder or ASD is a type of anxiety disorder that develops in the days and weeks immediately following a traumatic event. Common symptoms of ASD generally arise within one month of the event and are similar to those seen in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, ASD symptoms typically last between three and thirty days before resolving. In most cases, ASD symptoms fade without the need for significant mental health intervention.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder?

When acute stress disorder develops after experiencing trauma, you will experience symptoms that include anxiety, distress, avoidance, dissociation, and reexperiencing. These symptoms represent many of the same “types” of symptoms that occur with post-traumatic stress disorder. To meet the diagnostic criteria for acute stress disorder, it is necessary to experience a  minimum of three dissociative symptoms. Typical examples of dissociation symptoms include feeling numb or emotionally responsive, reduced awareness of your surroundings,   depersonalization, derealization, and dissociative amnesia.

It is also necessary to exhibit evidence of one or more reexperiencing symptoms. It is possible to reexperience trauma in several ways. Common examples include flashbacks, nightmares, recurring thoughts, illusions, and reexperiencing. Reexperiencing, or reliving an event, is a key reason people with acute stress disorder (or post-traumatic stress disorder) will actively avoid triggers that may remind them of their trauma, including places, people, and objects.

Other common symptoms that may suggest someone has acute stress disorder may include the inability to sit still or relax, an elevated startle reflex, difficulties sleeping and concentrating, and significant distress during everyday aspects of your daily life.

What Causes Acute Stress Disorder?

Causes of acute stress disorder closely resemble other trauma disorders. It is possible to develop acute stress disorder after experiencing, witnessing, or learning about a traumatic event or situation. Data released by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs suggests between six and thirty-three percent of those who experience a traumatic event will develop acute stress disorder. You are also at an increased risk of developing acute stress disorder if you have a history of trauma, a history of acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, or a history of specific mental health diagnoses..

What’s the Difference Between ASD and PTSD??

The critical differences between acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder focus on the onset and duration of the illness. When ASD develops after a trauma experience, the condition’s symptoms appear within a few days to a few weeks. The onset of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder often takes longer to present. Also, acute stress disorder symptoms usually resolve independently after a few weeks, whereas symptoms of PTSD can be a complex challenge that lasts throughout one’s lifetime. Acute stress disorder can evolve into post-traumatic stress disorder in situations where ASD symptoms do not resolve.

Treatment for Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD

It is important to remember that acute stress disorder can, for some, resolve without the need for significant mental health intervention. As a result, few evidence-based treatment models explicitly aim to address and treat ASD symptoms. However, if you need help overcoming ASD symptoms because they interfere with your emotional and physical health, you will notice that treatment models for ASD are nearly identical to those used to treat PTSD. The most common therapeutic treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder include psychotherapy and medications. The most widely used behavioral therapy in PTSD treatment programs is cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT is a popular,  successful evidence-based psychotherapy model. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has consistently shown to be the most effective treatment for PTSD and ASD. The effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy has been established in both short- and long-term treatment settings. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is used as part of a trauma-focused therapy program meaning the events specific to the trauma are the critical focus of a treatment session.

CBT sessions for PTSD and ASD also focus on helping to identify, understand, and finally, change unhelpful thinking and behavior patterns. Cognitive behavior therapy is an active therapy meaning you are highly involved in each session and expected to remain engaged in your therapy program inside and outside of your standard “appointments.” Engagement means you continue to learn and practice the skills you learned as part of a therapy session.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT is an umbrella term for different treatment procedures categorized as behavioral restructuring therapies. Various cognitive-behavioral therapy treatment models differ in the amounts of exposure and cognitive intervention required as part of treatment. These distinctions are important because the intensity of therapy that works for one person may not work well for someone else. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder includes cognitive restructuring and exposure therapy.

Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a therapeutic intervention that helps people process and make sense of painful memories. It is not uncommon for someone with a trauma history to remember the circumstances that led to their symptoms differently than how the actual event occurred. They may also feel guilt or shame about elements of their trauma that are outside their control. Cognitive restructuring focuses on helping you examine the event objectively and develop a realistic view of the trauma.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy helps someone experiencing symptoms of a trauma condition manage their fears by using intentional exposure to the memories or triggers of trauma. This is done in a safe and supported environment with a trained trauma therapist who works with you to determine the best exposure method to meet your therapeutic needs. All types of exposure therapy focus on gradual exposure to the trauma event to reduce reaction and sensitivity with each session. Exposure therapy can be very intense and, in some cases, frightening for the individual. Therefore treatment sessions must be conducted by a highly trained professional who understands post-traumatic stress disorder.

Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved a medication designed to “cure” PTSD or ASD. However, anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications may offer symptom relief during the early stages of treatment for some individuals. It is crucial to remember that medications are not a standalone treatment or a substitute alternative for a comprehensive therapy program. When used as a supplement to therapy, medications can assist with symptom management so you can focus on the therapeutic aspects of your treatment program.

While there is no way to prevent the type of trauma that causes acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, it is possible to learn healthy and effective ways to manage symptoms of both conditions. To learn more about treatments and interventions for acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, contact a member of our treatment team at The Los Angeles Outpatient Center today to learn more about our programs.