Acute Stress Disorder: Facts and Comparisons

ptsd male

Also known as acute stress reaction, acute stress disorder (ASD) is a mental illness that resembles post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ASD arises in response to a shocking or traumatic event and is diagnosed within one month following the triggering event. It is often a precursor to PTSD, manifesting similar signs and symptoms.

What Events Cause ASD?

Any traumatic event can lead to ASD. Due to individual differences, what may trigger ASD in one person may only cause a minor shock to another. Studies also show varying rates of ASD across different categories of trauma. The following events are likely to trigger ASD (and possibly PTSD), listed in approximate order of most likely to least likely:

  • Rape
  • Mass shooting
  • Robbery and assault
  • Violent assault
  • Automobile accidents
  • Miscellaneous events including assaults, fires, and industrial accidents
  • Natural Disasters

Who Is Most at Risk of Developing ASD?

Limited research exists as to which individuals are most likely to develop ASD. However, people with prior or existing PTSD, a history of physical or mental trauma, and those with other mental disorders have a higher risk of developing ASD when confronted with a new traumatic event.

What’s the Difference Between ASD and PTSD?

Two major differences separate ASD and PTSD. First, ASD is viewed as a short-term disorder and is typically diagnosed within 30 days after a traumatic event. Traumatic stress symptoms diagnosed after one month would fall under PTSD, voiding the ASD diagnosis.

The Role of Dissociative Symptoms

Second, dissociative symptoms play a greater role in ASD than in PTSD. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines dissociation as a disturbance of thinking, identity, awareness, consciousness, or memory not associated with an existing mental illness or substance influence. Dissociative symptoms can last a few minutes in some people, and several days in others.

ASD Assessments

An accurate ASD assessment requires that an individual display three dissociative symptoms. These include:

  • Confusion
  • Numbness
  • Amnesia
  • Depression
  • Detachment from self
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions

This condition does not apply to PTSD.

How Often Does ASD Lead to PTSD?

People diagnosed with ASD who do not receive treatment have a high risk of developing PTSD. A study found that over 75 percent of people diagnosed with ASD met PTSD diagnosis criteria after six months for automobile accidents, assault, and mild traumatic brain injury.

People who meet some ASD criteria but not enough to receive a full diagnosis may also be at risk of developing PTSD. The absence of dissociation accounts for these situations.

What Are the Most Effective Treatments for ASD?

To better manage dissociative symptoms and reduce the risk of future PTSD, medical experts recommend treatment for people with ASD. Studies show cognitive behavioral therapy to be effective at reducing PTSD risk. CBT involves three components:

  1. Desensitization to traumatic stressors
  2. Hypnotherapy to subconsciously condition the person to a new set of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors
  3. Psychotherapy to bring to light subconscious thoughts and fears surrounding the trauma

Holistic treatments, which aim to heal the whole individual, may also prove effective in some individuals. By taking an indirect approach and activating different regions of the brain, these treatments (i.e., music therapy, art therapy, yoga, swim therapy, etc.) can help people come to terms with their trauma and develop new ways of thinking.

A professional inpatient treatment center can assess your loved one for ASD and develop an individualized treatment plan. The most successful therapies account not only for ASD, but also for underlying illnesses, substance abuse, family history, and other factors.


  1. Gibson, Laura E., Acute Stress Disorder, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 3 January 2014,
  2. Duckworth, Ken; Freedman, Jacob L., Dissociative Disorders, NAMI, November 2012,

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