Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a diagnosable mental health condition that occurs in the days or weeks immediately following exposure to a life-threatening traumatic event. Many people confuse this condition with another better-known illness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which only occurs a month or more after such an event. Although they are essentially different, ASD can “turn into” PTSD. In fact, when not properly treated, ASD is a fairly accurate predictor for future cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Acute Stress Disorder Essentials
The same types of trauma that can trigger PTSD can also trigger ASD. Common examples of these triggers include:
- Exposure to a natural disaster
- Exposure to rape or sexual assault
- Exposure to serious accidents, and
- Exposure to life-threatening illness
Not everyone exposed to these traumatic events or situations will develop ASD or PTSD. In fact, most people won’t. However, a minority of both men and women will develop diagnosable symptoms. There are two key differences between ASD and PTSD. First, doctors can only diagnose ASD within a 30-day window following a triggering traumatic event. Conversely, they can only diagnose PTSD after that one-month window closes. Importantly, the two conditions also produce somewhat different symptoms. To receive an ASD diagnosis, you must have symptoms of something that doctors call dissociation. Examples of dissociation include:
- Diminished awareness of your surroundings
- A sense that your surroundings aren’t real, and
- A sense of detachment from your own body or mind
A PTSD diagnosis does not require the presence of any of these symptoms.
ASD as a Predictor of PTSD
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs maintains an agency called the National Center for PTSD, which is dedicated to the study and treatment of both post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder. Experts at this agency report that an untreated case of ASD is one of the most reliable predictors for a later diagnosis of PTSD. In fact, two studies that focused on the survivors of serious motor vehicle accidents found that roughly 78% to 82% of those survivors who qualify for an ASD diagnosis go on to develop PTSD. The authors of one of these studies also found that trauma survivors can be at high risk for PTSD even if they have some indications of ASD, but don’t qualify for an official ASD diagnosis because they lack dissociative symptoms. Resources U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – National Center for PTSD: Acute Stress Disorder https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treatment/early/acute-stress-disorder.asp National Institute of Mental Health: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml