Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are a health care professional

honeypot link

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)

By

John W. Barnhill

, MD, New York-Presbyterian Hospital

Reviewed/Revised Aug 2023
View PATIENT EDUCATION

Acute stress disorder is a brief period of intrusive recollections occurring within 4 weeks of witnessing or experiencing an overwhelming traumatic event. Diagnosis is based on clinical criteria. Treatment focuses on self-care and psychotherapy. Pharmacotherapy has a limited role.

Acute stress disorder (ASD) involves acute stress reactions that develop within 1 month of exposure to a traumatic event. These stress reactions include intrusive recollections of the trauma, avoidance of stimuli that remind the patient of the trauma, negative mood, dissociative symptoms (including derealization and amnesia), avoidance of reminders, and increased arousal. If significant symptoms last more than 1 month, a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disabling disorder that develops after exposure to a traumatic event. It is characterized by intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks; avoidance... read more should be considered.

Diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder

  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR) criteria

To meet the DSM-5-TR criteria for diagnosis of acute stress disorder, patients must have been exposed directly or indirectly to a traumatic event, and 9 of the following symptoms from any of the 5 categories (intrusion, negative mood, dissociation, avoidance, and arousal) must be present for a period of 3 days up to 1 month (1 Diagnosis reference Acute stress disorder is a brief period of intrusive recollections occurring within 4 weeks of witnessing or experiencing an overwhelming traumatic event. Diagnosis is based on clinical criteria... read more ):

Intrusion symptoms

  • Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the event

  • Recurrent distressing dreams of the event

  • Dissociative reactions (eg, flashbacks in which patients feel as if the traumatic event is recurring)

  • Intense psychological or physiologic distress when reminded of the event (eg, by entering a similar location, by sounds similar to those heard during the event)

Negative mood

  • Persistent inability to experience positive emotions (eg, happiness, satisfaction, loving feelings)

Dissociative symptoms

  • An altered sense of reality (eg, feeling in a daze, time slowing, altered perceptions)

  • Inability to remember an important part of the traumatic event

Avoidance symptoms

  • Efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings associated with the event

  • Efforts to avoid external reminders (people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations) associated with the event

Arousal symptoms

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Irritability or angry outbursts

  • Hypervigilance

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Exaggerated startle response

In addition, these symptoms must cause significant distress or significantly impair social or occupational functioning. They should not be attributable to the physiologic effects of a substance-related or another medical disorder.

Diagnosis reference

  • 1. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition,Text Revision (DSM-5-TR). American Psychiatric Association Publishing, Washington, DC, pp 313-319.

Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder

  • Safety and self-care

  • Psychotherapy

  • Limited role of pharmacotherapy

Safety and self-care are important for successful recovery from acute stress disorder (ASD). It can be difficult to overcome ASD if the traumatic experience is recurring and the surrounding conditions remain unsafe. Attention to physical needs and sufficient sleep are helpful.

In addition, psychotherapy focused on working through the emotional aftermath of the trauma may be effective. The adverse effects of sudden traumatic experience can include shame and inappropriate guilt, which can be modulated by emotional protection and support.

Self-care

Self-care is crucial during and after a crisis or trauma. Self-care can be divided into 3 components:

  • Personal safety

  • Physical health and practical support

  • Mindfulness

Personal safety is fundamental. After a traumatic episode, people are better able to process the experience when they know that they and their loved ones are safe. It can be difficult, however, to gain complete safety during ongoing crises such as domestic abuse, war, or an infectious pandemic. During such ongoing difficulties, people should seek the guidance of experts on how they and their loved ones can be as safe as possible.

Physical health can be put at risk during and after traumatic experiences. As much as possible, the at-risk person should try to maintain a healthy schedule of eating, sleeping, and exercise. Medications and substances that sedate (eg, benzodiazepines) and intoxicate (eg, alcohol) should be used sparingly, if at all. Practical support includes assistance with housing, legal support, insurance, and other issues that need to be addressed but can be overwhelming.

A mindful approach to self-care aims to reduce the stress, boredom, anger, sadness, and isolation that traumatized people normally experience. If circumstances allow, at-risk individuals should make and follow a normal daily schedule.

Community involvement can be crucial, even if maintenance of human connection is difficult during a crisis.

It is useful to practice familiar hobbies as well as activities that sound fun and distracting: draw a picture, watch a movie, cook.

Stretching and exercise are beneficial, but self-soothing techniques such as counting one's own breaths, meditating, or self-hypnosis can also be helpful. Social connection with family and friends is also encouraged.

Under stress, people can become short-tempered, even with those they care about. Friends and family can be expecially helpful in reaching out and providing expressions of concern and comfort. Sending a nice note, making someone cookies, and offering up a smile may not only be a nice surprise for the recipient, but such actions can reduce the hopelessness and shame that tend to be part of the experience of trauma.

Psychotherapy

Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a time-limited CBT treatment that has the most robust evidence base for treatment of ASD and prevention of PTSD (1 Treatment references Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disabling disorder that develops after exposure to a traumatic event. It is characterized by intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks; avoidance... read more ). This psychotherapy consists of 3 parts:

  • Patient education is an important initial step. Normalization and explanation of the stress response is often helpful, as is a reminder that symptoms should improve.

  • Cognitive restructuring helps correct maladaptive thoughts the patient might have about the trauma or personal response to the trauma.

  • Exposure to traumatic memories or safe reminders of traumatic experiences is an important—if difficult—part of the psychotherapy. Through re-experiencing, the patient is better able to emotionally process material that had previously been experienced as overwhelming.

Trauma-focused CBT is generally delayed for at least 2 weeks following the trauma. This time period allows most situations to calm down and gives patients some distance from acute issues related to such complications as danger, pain, surgery, and geographical relocation. Since trauma-focused CBT can itself be stressful, therapy may be deferred for months while the clinician identifies factors that might complicate treatment. These complicating factors include clinically significant suicidality, dissociation, grief, anger, psychosis, or PTSD symptoms from an earlier trauma.

Debriefing is a form of psychotherapy that is discouraged because it has not proven to be effective; however, it remains widely practiced. For this intervention, the patient is asked to provide a detailed description of the trauma within the first 72 hours.

Pharmacotherapy

There are no medications that are supported by sufficient evidence to recommend routine use for reducing the symptoms of ASD or preventing the development of PTSD (2 Treatment references Acute stress disorder is a brief period of intrusive recollections occurring within 4 weeks of witnessing or experiencing an overwhelming traumatic event. Diagnosis is based on clinical criteria... read more ).

Short-term use of benzodiazepines may be helpful for patients with insomnia, anxiety, and agitation, but prolonged use appears to interfere with recovery. While there may be subsets of patients with ASD who experience relief with medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), propranolol, or morphine, studies have not yet demonstrated robust efficacy. One retrospective study from the U.S. military suggested that use of morphine in the acute aftermath of serious physical trauma reduced the risk of the subsequent development of PTSD (3 Treatment references Acute stress disorder is a brief period of intrusive recollections occurring within 4 weeks of witnessing or experiencing an overwhelming traumatic event. Diagnosis is based on clinical criteria... read more ); this approach has not been otherwise studied.

Treatment references

  • 1. Carpenter JK, Andrews LA, Witcraft SM, et al: Cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety and related disorders: A meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials. Depress Anxiety 35(6):502-514, 2018. doi: 10.1002/da.22728

  • 2. Wright LA, Sijbrandij M, Sinnerton R, et al: Pharmacological prevention and early treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Transl Psychiatry 9(1):334, 2019. doi: 10.1038/s41398-019-0673-5

  • 3. Holbrook TL, Galarneau MR, Dye JL, et al: Morphine use after combat injury in Iraq and post-traumatic stress disorder N Engl J Med 362(2):110-117, 2010. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa0903326.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
HEMANGEOL, Inderal, Inderal LA, Inderal XL, InnoPran XL
ARYMO ER, Astramorph PF, Avinza, DepoDur, Duramorph PF, Infumorph, Kadian, MITIGO, MORPHABOND, MS Contin, MSIR, Opium Tincture, Oramorph SR, RMS, Roxanol, Roxanol-T
View PATIENT EDUCATION
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
quiz link

Test your knowledge

Take a Quiz! 
iOS ANDROID
iOS ANDROID
iOS ANDROID
TOP