Acute stress reaction (some useful insights)

In the next entry, you will find some useful information about acute stress reactions. Besides, you will find information about stressful situations, stress management, and related topics.

Acute stress reaction 

An acute stress reaction is a condition in which symptoms arise from a stressful situation or event. The main characteristic, referred to by the word ‘acute’, is that such symptoms appear suddenly and are usually short-lived. Acute stress reactions can arise after different types of traumatic events. While they may be standard, such events may differ from person to person. 

Symptoms of an acute stress reaction 

Among the most common symptoms that characterize an acute stress reaction are the following: 

  • Unpleasant memories of the event in an intense and repetitive manner, over and over again. In addition, the memories appear in an uncontrolled and intrusive manner. The person has the feeling that the memory “has a life of its own” and returns to his or her mind without stopping. 
  • In addition to this, the person experiences repetitive dreams about the event, which creates a lot of discomfort and difficulty in sleeping.
  • Feeling that the stressful/traumatic situation is happening again (e.g. in the form of flashbacks).
  • Feeling unpleasant and intense when the situation is recalled for some reason (e.g. entering a place that resembles the stressful situation or seeing images similar to those experienced during the traumatic event).
  • An inability to feel pleasant emotions (such as joy, love, satisfaction). Even though the person tries hard to get these emotions, he or she is not able to experience them. 
  • Loss of some portions of memory, which in the past were related to the traumatic situation. 
  • The person strives to suppress unpleasant memories, feelings and ideas that are somehow related to the lived situation. 
  • The person strives to suppress everything that is external (places, smells, things, situations, etc.) that is somehow related to the event. 
  • Sleep is altered in different ways. 
  • The person experiences increased irritability and anger attacks, and this is beyond his control.
  • Excessive vigilance (or hypervigilance) over any possibility of being in danger again. The person is constantly on the lookout for something dangerous to happen. 
  • Problems focusing attention. 
  • A more intense than normal response to loud noise, movement, or other stimuli. The person is more sensitive to such changes in the environment around him or her and this causes a lot of discomfort.

Many of the above symptoms occur in the acute stress reaction and, in addition to them, the person’s functionality in daily life is greatly altered. All of these symptoms begin to interfere with daily activities such as work and interpersonal relationships. The person begins to feel that he or she is out of control and that everything he or she is feeling has more power. 

As with other mental disorders, when these symptoms are experienced very intensely and frequently, and you notice that there is an alteration from the previous normal level, it is best to consult a professional in order to get help. While there are elements that can be helpful, diagnosis and treatment are sometimes necessary for proper recovery. 

What is the treatment for the acute stress reaction?

Treatment for the acute stress reaction is based primarily on supportive measures. Since it is a disorder that is usually temporary and/or temporary, the help of those close to the patient is usually sufficient for the affected person to manage the traumatic event properly and to assimilate it into their life repertoire without major inconveniences. 

In this sense, the help consists of having appropriate spaces, with friends or loved ones, where the person can express what happened, describe it and sometimes even provide details that generated concern, as well as express what that traumatic situation made him feel. All these measures help to make the correct management of the stress. 

Importance of empathy and emotional support

When faced with an acute stress reaction, the opportunity to have people who try to generate understanding and behave in a compassionate manner is a great help and generates many benefits. When treated with empathy, the person experiences that what has happened to him or her makes sense and it is understandable that he or she has reacted in this way. 

Hand in hand with empathy is emotional containment, that is, everything that a person does to receive and help manage the emotions of another. When there is emotional containment, people feel understood and do not generate feelings of guilt for experiencing the symptoms they have active. 

On the contrary, when people are judged or they don’t have the chance to explain themselves and try to make other people sense of their own situations, they start to feel isolated and invalidated. Invalidation is terrible when it comes to managing stress in the right manner. 

We all need to feel understood and that “our world” makes sense to other people, even when we don’t want them to share it in the exact same way. Stress management is strongly related to supportive relationships and communities, we as humans are a very social species. 

The normal duration of an acute stress reaction

Commonly, under normal conditions (i.e., in the absence of complications), immediately after an acute stress reaction occurs, the symptoms usually remain active for up to one month. Typically, in the first month after the stressful situation, the symptoms will disappear and/or a significant decrease in intensity. 

This is what happens in most people, so there are no long-term consequences. The problems are generated when there is chronic stress, that is when the duration of the symptoms extends beyond the period mentioned above. 

When symptoms last more than a month, people are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is well known that this mental disorder is even more difficult to treat and the experience of the patients is really aversive. In some way, an acute stress reaction is a flag when something needs to be done in order to keep balanced mental health facing some situation. 

Risk factors for having an acute stress reaction 

Among the risk factors that may make it easier to generate an acute stress reaction are the following (those are the same for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)): 

  • Having some history of exposure to traumatic situations prior to the recent event That is, if the person has been exposed to a traumatic event in the past, he or she is at greater risk of generating an acute stress reaction to a current traumatic event. 
  • Belonging to the female gender. Women are at greater risk of expressing an acute stress reaction to a traumatic situation, as well as a greater risk of developing chronic stress. 
  • Depending on the severity of the trauma, people will be at greater or lesser risk of generating an acute stress reaction. The greater the severity, the greater the risk of the reaction. It is not the same to witness someone else being robbed as it is to be sexually abused in person. 
  • Count on the personality trait of neuroticism. Given the characteristics of this trait, people who possess it to a high degree are more likely to generate an acute stress reaction when exposed to a traumatic or highly stressful situation. 
  • Having avoidant coping strategies also creates a greater risk of manifesting an acute stress reaction. When people are accustomed to not coping with the situations they encounter, they are more likely to have an acute stress reaction. 

On the other hand, other elements have also been mentioned as intervening in people’s post-trauma response. For example, people with greater reactivity to stressors are more likely to develop an acute stress reaction, since their baseline level is high and they can be more easily hyperactive.

Some people have greater difficulty in being treated for the extinction of learned behaviors, making it more difficult for them to cope with the traumatic situation and process it in such a way that it can be assimilated only as an unpleasant event from the past. 

Finally, it has also been found that some people are more likely to have catastrophic thinking prior to any event, so they may be very active even before something traumatic happens. This will create a greater risk of having an acute stress reaction. 

Why do some people develop an acute stress reaction to a traumatic event?

It is not yet clear why some people develop an acute stress reaction and others do not. However, there are some useful ideas for trying to understand this phenomenon. These include a tendency to overestimate the possibility of traumatic events, a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of negative or traumatic events in the future. 

Some differential elements 

The symptoms of the acute stress reaction are similar to other conditions related to mental disorders, and for that reason, care must be taken in identifying it. It should be distinguished from:

  • Panic attacks, since the expression of symptoms, can be very similar. 
  • Adjustment disorder, in which some common symptoms are also shared and the expression of the disorder can be very similar. 
  • Effects produced by the consumption of analgesic drugs.
  • Any medical condition that includes coma or altered consciousness

effects of substance abuse 

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Conclusion 

It is important to note that the timing of the acute stress reaction is crucial. If symptoms that occur after a traumatic event (such as emotional over-activation, sleep problems, irritability, recurrent unpleasant memories, etc.) persist for more than a month, there is a risk that people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which is more severe.

Frequently asked questions about (FAQs) about acute stress reaction

What are the symptoms of acute stress reaction?

The symptoms of acute stress reaction include excessive vigilance or hypervigilance, very intense difficulty in focusing attention, intense sleep disturbance, irritability to everyday events, and anger discharge. 

How long does acute stress reaction last?

An acute stress reaction can be diagnosed when symptoms have been present for at least three days after exposure to a traumatic event. As mentioned in the article, the time period cannot be longer than one month.

Is acute stress a mental illness?

The acute stress reaction is an alteration in a person’s mental health that can occur very soon after a traumatic situation to which they were exposed. If this first acute stress reaction to an event is not managed properly, post-traumatic stress disorder may develop.

What are 3 examples of things that could cause acute stress?

Three examples of events that could cause an acute stress reaction are: being sexually abused, receiving a death threat, witnessing another person’s death. 

What is a stress-related disorder?

A stress-related disorder can be any alteration of normal psychological variables as a result of an abnormal response to a stressful event. Improper stress management can also lead to such alterations in the future. 

Recommended resources 

  1. The Stress Management Workbook: De-stress in 10 Minutes or Less
  2. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition
  3. The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

References

  1. Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)
  2. Acute Stress Reaction (Science Direct overview)
  3. Acute stress reaction and completed suicide 

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