In psychology, there are three different types of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic. But how do you tell the difference between PTSD and acute stress disorder?

When it comes to trauma, there are things that happen to some that need addressing with professional help. Two mental health issues similar in detail are acute stress disorder and PTSD, which stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. While they may seem similar and relate to similar traumatic events, there are different in how they are diagnosed and treated. Here is more on acute stress disorder and PTSD. What they are, how they are different, and how each is treated for a better chance of living more free from symptoms.

What is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder is a disorder that may develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event. For example, a person witnesses a mass shooting or goes through a major natural disaster. These events cause some people to experience symptoms from three days to one month after the initial trauma.

It goes back to WWI when the term shell shock was used. Figures show that up to 20 percent of those who have gone through a traumatic event develop this disorder. More interestingly is that around half of those same people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder after the acute stress disorder.

It is considered to be true that someone who has more trauma from the event has a higher rate of being likely to have acute stress disorder. For example, if two students are traumatized by a school shooting, it is possible both will develop acute stress disorder and possibly PTSD in the future. Yet, the one who had more direct exposure or more trauma is more likely to get acute stress disorder. If one student was wounded and saw their classmates wounded, they have a higher chance of getting this disorder than the student who was at school at the same time of the event but did not witness it directly.

This doesn’t mean that one student’s feelings are any less valid and it also depends on a few factors that make a difference. But the more the trauma and direct correlation, the more apt the person is to have acute stress disorder.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

Several factors can place you at higher risk for developing ASD after a trauma:

  • Having gone through other traumatic events
  • Having had PTSD in the past
  • Having had prior mental health problems
  • Tending to have symptoms, such as not knowing who or where you are, when confronted with trauma

What Is PTSD?

PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder is best explained by Psychology Today:

Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. It is not unusual for people who have experienced trauma to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Symptoms may not appear until several months or even years after the traumatic event. People who suffer PTSD may feel stressed or anxious even when they are not in danger.

The autonomic system in the brain is activated during PTSD and this is due to the frontal lobe being taken over by the trauma.

PTSD has three main components that differentiate itself from other mental health events. These include:

  1. Hyperarousal. This is where a person has difficulty with sleep, issues with concentrating, and is jittery. It is a feeling of being on alert at all times even when things are calm or normal.
  2. Avoidance. With avoidance, the person suffering from the trauma may avoid anything to do with it or even things unrelated to the event. Anything that reminds them is avoided such as being around certain people or going to specific places. Some people even avoid others altogether.
  3. Flashbacks. This one is easily explained. It is where the person who underwent the trauma relives it. This can be through dreams, nightmares, or just thoughts of the event where they feel as if they are reliving the trauma.

There are also many physical symptoms that include things like fatigue, anxiety, restlessness, heart palpitations, and more. And keep in mind that while first-hand experience is often directly relevant to PTSD, it is not always the case. As stated by the American Psychiatric Association:

A diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an upsetting traumatic event. However, exposure could be indirect rather than first hand. For example, PTSD could occur in an individual learning about the violent death of a close family. It can also occur as a result of repeated exposure to horrible details of trauma such as police officers exposed to details of child abuse cases.

The Differences Between Acute Stress Disorder vs PTSD

While acute stress disorder and PTSD are similar, there are differences. Simply put, PTSD is a disorder that has a long-term effect from trauma. Acute stress disorder happens right after the source of trauma.

Of course, both are not so different in their effects and fundamental issues. In fact, the symptomology is quite the same. The major differences include the variations in duration time while the symptoms and treatment options have minor differences. Here are the primary contrasts:

  • As mentioned, the onset time is different when you compare PTSD to acute stress disorder. With acute stress disorder, the symptoms last from 0-28 days. With PTSD, the individual must have symptoms that have lasted over a month. A person may have acute stress disorder and not PTSD but a person with PTSD has to have had acute stress disorder first.
  • The same thing goes for the duration of symptoms from PTSD and acute stress disorder. Both have symptoms that are similar in nature but the duration for PTSD can be several years. On the other hand, acute stress disorder has symptoms that typically last from three or four days to up to around four weeks.
  • The type of symptoms in both are somewhat similar but not exact. For example, for someone with PTSD the symptoms typically may include avoidance, re-experiencing the trauma, and changes in cognition or mood. With acute stress disorder, the symptoms are dissociation.
  • When it comes to treatment for both, there are again a few variables. For treating acute stress disorder, antidepressants and psychotherapy are typical forms of treatment. In PTSD, the treatment involves EDMR therapy, medication, and long-term psychotherapy.

What Causes Both?

There are many types of trauma that cause acute stress disorder, as well as PTSD. These include things like:

  • Sexual assault
  • Natural disaster
  • Combat and war
  • An accident
  • Long-term exposure to trauma (first responders, etc)
  • Witnessing a traumatic event
  • Personal traumatic attack (rape or domestic violence episodes are examples)

There is no concrete reason why one person may develop an issue while another person does not. Of course, there are risk factors that include a past history of mental health problems, a family history, and things related to the person’s own history. a history of abuse, poor coping skills, and more. Of course, developing a mental health issue related to a traumatic event is not your fault. We cannot predict who will get PTSD or acute stress disorder but we can help you get help.

Treatment Options for PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder

The treatment options for acute stress disorder and PTSD are very similar with just a few variations. While both are treated with medication and psychotherapy, PTSD treatment also involves EDMR therapy. The duration is longer too. With PTSD, there is long-term psychotherapy. Those with either disorder may benefit from family, one-on-one, and group counseling.

Treatment for acute stress disorder and PTSD helps you live a more peaceful and joyful life. It is important not to let the traumatic event define you and that is what treatment helps with.

If you are someone you love has been through a traumatic event and is having difficulties, you or they may be experiencing acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. We can help you heal better and have less symptoms of both disorders. Just contact us so we can help you start your journey to more peace of mind.

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