Acute Stress Disorder Vs. PTSD

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 12/10/2020

More than half of the American population experiences a minimum of one event that may have been traumatic during their lifetime. Trauma can initiate a string of lasting effects that may diminish an individual’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.

Traumatic events may even lead to the onslaught of certain mental health disorders, two of which are Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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However, there are some grey areas as to how these two conditions caused by trauma are different from each other and the possible similarities between them.

Read on to discover the differences and similarities there are between acute stress disorder and PTSD.

What Is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute Stress Disorder, or ASD for short, may be an anxiety disorder characterized by initial trauma symptoms that begin to manifest right after a traumatic event. Typically, ASD may occur within the space of a day after the event until about one month after the traumatic event. When ASD occurs in an individual, it may last for a minimum of about three days and it may last for up to a month.

What Is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD for short, refers to a mental health disorder resulting from a traumatic event. Individuals who have PTSD usually tend to have a sense of danger that is heightened. Their natural response system gets altered by the trauma they have experienced, and this causes them to feel fearful and sometimes stressed, even though they might be safe and not in the way of any danger. Unlike ASD, PTSD can only be diagnosed if it is the case that the symptoms that accompany the condition last longer than one month.

Symptoms Of Acute Stress Disorder

The symptoms of ASD are categorized as follows:

Dissociative Symptoms

If an individual has ASD, they must exhibit at least 3 of these symptoms:

  • Feeling detached and emotional unresponsiveness
  • A reduced sense of awareness in their surrounding
  • Familiar things begin to feel strange and unreal
  • Feeling that their thoughts are not real or that they do not belong to them
  • Dissociative amnesia

Reliving The Traumatic Event

If an individual has ASD, they are likely to persistently relive their traumatic experience through at least one of the following ways:

  • Having recurring thoughts, illusions, thoughts, flashback episodes, or images of their traumatic experience
  • Having a feeling of reliving the experience that caused them trauma
  • Feeling a sense of distress when certain things trigger a memory of the traumatic event
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Avoidance

Individuals who have ASD are also likely to avoid any stimulus capable of triggering a memory of the traumatic event. Examples of stimuli they may avoid are places, people, objects, thoughts, activities, conversations, or even feelings that may cause them to remember the trauma they experienced.

Anxiety Or Increased Sensitivity

The symptoms that characterize ASD may cause anxiety in an individual and increase their sensitivity to certain stimuli. These symptoms include the following:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Increased irritability
  • Inability to stay still or stop moving
  • Easily getting startled

Distress

Some ASD symptoms are likely to cause certain individual levels of distress and may disrupt certain aspects of their everyday life, like work, school, and interpersonal relationships. They may also experience difficulties in starting a task or in completing such tasks.

Symptoms Of PTSD

Like ASD, PTSD is also developed as a result of direct or, in some cases, indirect exposure to a trauma-causing event.

PTSD symptoms are similar to those experienced by persons who have ASD. However, they may differ in severity levels, with symptoms of PTSD often being more severe than those of ASD.

Symptoms of PTSD are classified into four categories:

  • Intrusion: symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts of the traumatic events
  • Avoidance: avoiding places, activities, thoughts, or people that trigger a memory of the traumatic event
  • Arousal and reactivity: difficulty in concentrating, increased irritability, anger bouts
  • Cognition and mood: negative thoughts or moods or isolation
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People who have PTSD are likely to experience panic attacks and depression, as well.

How ASD Is Diagnosed

The primary health care provider carries out a diagnosis by making inquiries about the nature of the trauma-causing events and the symptoms you are experiencing. The health care provider is likely to ask questions that will help them in ruling out other possible causes of those symptoms like:

  • Side effects of some medications
  • Drug abuse
  • Other health issues
  • Other mental health disorders

How PTSD Is Diagnosed

In diagnosing PTSD, the mental health professional or medical practitioner will make inquiries regarding your trauma-causing event and the symptoms you are experiencing. They have to be sure that the symptoms have also lasted longer than one month or for a minimum of one month.

For the diagnosis to confirm that you have PTSD, the following criteria of symptoms have to be met:

  • A minimum of 1 symptom that belongs in the intrusion category
  • A minimum of 1 symptom that belongs in the avoidance category
  • A minimum of 2 symptoms that belong in the arousal and reactivity category
  • A minimum of 2 symptoms that belong in the cognition and mood category

Differences Between Acute Stress Disorder And PTSD

The primary differences between acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are exhibited in the onslaught, the time of their symptoms, the accompanying symptoms, and the treatment options available to address the conditions.

  • Onslaught: While ASD lasts about 0 to 28 days from the time the trauma may have occurred, a person cannot be diagnosed with PTSD if they have not experienced the symptoms for longer than a month.
  • Timespan of symptoms: Symptoms of ASD typically last anywhere between 3 days and 28 days. The symptoms that accompany PTSD typically last a minimum of a month, with the likelihood of recurring for several years after the traumatic event.
  • Accompanying symptoms: Typically, ASD is accompanied by dissociative symptoms. On the other hand, PTSD may be accompanied by intrusive symptoms, avoidance, increased sensitivity, and alterations in the individual’s mood and cognition.
  • Treatment options: Most commonly, antidepressant medications and short-term psychotherapy may be used to treat ASD, while in the treatment of PTSD symptoms, long-term medications and therapy like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) may be used.

Similarities Between Acute Stress Disorder And PTSD

Both disorders, ASD and PTSD, are usually developed due to exposure, directly or indirectly, to a traumatic event. Because of the traumatic event, the person may struggle to handle a heightened sensitivity, emotional dysregulation, and the likelihood of avoiding persons, events, or places that may trigger a memory of the traumatic experience. Nonetheless, ASD cannot last more than a month, while PTSD may go on for years.

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The events that may cause PTSD are just about the same as those that cause ASD. These events may include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Physical assault or abuse
  • Sexual abuse or rape
  • Military combat
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Emotional abuse
  • Severe injuries sustained by oneself or others
  • Exposure to near-death experiences
  • Life-threatening health conditions

People may develop PTSD either by a direct experience of any of the above and more or by indirect exposure to any of them. Only about 6 – 33% of persons who were exposed to a traumatic experience developed ASD. It is believed that certain factors are capable of increasing the risk of developing either of both conditions, factors like genetics, other mental health disorders, prior history of either of the conditions.

Some people develop PTSD after they may have struggled with ASD. However, it is possible to develop PTSD without developing ASD before the condition.

Importance Of Treatment

There is the possibility that if attended to early enough, an individual who has developed ASD could be helped to prevent the eventual diagnosis of PTSD. Suppose an individual with ASD or PTSD gets access to professional treatment. In that case, they can gain the advantage of developing strategies and mechanisms to help them cope before their condition deteriorates into a more chronic situation. This means it would be erroneous to assume that either ASD or PTSD are just normal stress and anxiety symptoms and will go away independently. And this is because the presence of these disorders simply shows that a person is struggling to handle their traumatic distress.

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Neglecting any of these two serious mental health disorders may result in a severe increase in the symptoms an individual is experiencing. This may have a significant toll on other aspects of their life and may increase the risk of developing other mental health issues or getting involved in substance and alcohol abuse. The earlier a person can get access to treatment, the closer they can get to their trauma source. And by implication, the longer it takes before a person can get access to treatment, the more they may have to struggle through the experience on their own, and the worse the symptoms may become.

It is important to reach out to get help if you may be experiencing any of these mental health disorders’ symptoms.

You are not sure if you have PTSD? Take this test to find out and reach out to a certified therapist.