Acute stress disorder vs. PTSD: Differences in diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment

After experiencing a traumatic or emotionally scarring event, the fear, pain, and helplessness felt in that moment can linger and affect someone’s life in the weeks and months after it happens. This reaction is completely understandable, as events like those are extremely harmful and can certainly change the life of the person that experiences it.  

Sometimes, though, traumatic events can cause intense feelings of fear and anxiety after the fact, resulting in symptoms that interrupt someone’s regular pattern of living. When this happens, someone likely has acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. Though these are two separate diagnoses, they are quite similar in both appearance and cause.

What Are Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD? How Are They Different from One Another?

Acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are very similar—nearly the same—but there are some differentiating factors that make them separate diagnoses.

Acute stress disorder is a mental health condition that develops and resolves within the first month following a traumatic event. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also triggered by a traumatic event, but unlike with ASD, the symptoms persist over a longer period of time, and can affect one’s daily life if it’s not treated. 

In most cases, if help is received, symptoms of ASD will decrease quickly over time. However, if symptoms do not decrease, ASD can turn into PTSD or even chronic PTSD. Chronic PTSD occurs when symptoms of PTSD last more than three months.

What Are the 9 Symptoms of Acute Stress? What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

As PTSD and ASD are essentially the same, they present the same set of general symptoms. Symptoms of ASD and PTSD include: 

  • Recurrent memories or flashbacks of event(s)
  • Intense anxiety
  • Dissociation, or inability to remember the event (fully or partially)
  • Avoiding memories and external reminders of the event (such as avoiding driving after an accident)
  • Trouble sleeping or falling asleep
  • Hypervigilance
  • Trouble with concentration and focus
  • An exaggerated startle response 
  • Negative mood

Again, the only difference between symptoms of ASD vs. PTSD is that symptoms will last longer with PTSD, whereas with ASD they may only last a few weeks, especially if they are addressed and treated quickly. 

With chronic PTSD, when symptoms last more than three months, these issues can seriously affect the way someone is living their life. They might take drastic measures to avoid anything or anywhere that reminds them of what happened to them, or be hypervigilant to the point where they sense danger everywhere. It can be debilitating, exhausting, and terrifying, as the condition causes them to live in fear constantly. This is why seeing a mental health professional and finding suitable treatment is imperative. Through conversation and coping tools, they will receive the help they need and have a space to process the terrible experience(s) they’ve had.

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Does Acute Stress Disorder Turn into PTSD?

It can, but ASD doesn’t always turn into PTSD. If ASD is treated, the symptoms should go away over time, causing the disorder to last only about one month. However, if it goes untreated or the treatment is unsuccessful, causing the symptoms to persist, ASD can then develop into chronic PTSD. 

Chronic PTSD can last months or even years, depending on the amount and efficacy of treatment.

What Are Risk Factors for Acute Stress Disorder? What Are Risk Factors for PTSD?

There are no official risk factors for developing ASD or PTSD, since both of them are caused solely by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. However, there are factors that could make someone predisposed to witnessing or being involved in violent events, or even influence how mentally susceptible they may be to developing those disorders. 

Some examples of possible factors that could increase the risk of someone developing ASD are previously experiencing significant amounts of trauma (one event or multiple) or overexposure to violence. 

There are also some pre-event circumstances that could contribute to someone having longer-term symptoms and developing PTSD:

  • Overexposure to adverse life events
  • Early substance use
  • Multiple losses, such as the death of a loved one or a miscarriage
  • Family instability
  • Lack of healthy coping skills
  • Lack of social support

Some of these risk factors look similar in both disorders, as they both stem from the same thing and are only differentiated by time.

How Does Treatment Vary for ASD vs. PTSD?

The treatments for ASD and PTSD are essentially identical, since their symptoms and causes are the same. The main goal of treating these conditions is to help those suffering from them rebuild and regain their sense of safety, allowing them to return to normal life.

The main treatment plan for people suffering from ASD or PTSD is psychotherapy, or talk therapy. This involves talking about the traumatic incident or incidents, then building up healthy coping skills. It will also emphasize developing an understanding of how the brain was impacted by the stress of the event and discovering where that impact is emotionally. 

A frequent technique for doing this is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is an approach that seeks to assess your thought processes in the past and present, discovering how they’ve evolved and how they’re currently affecting you. Through that, you can start to see which thoughts and patterns are helping you and which ones might be having a more detrimental effect.

However, something that could differ in ASD vs. PTSD treatment is if someone had PTSD due to childhood or past trauma. In this case, it can be hard to recall details of the event, which can make it difficult to process what happened. 

In some cases, the brain can block memories that are extremely painful or traumatic as a way to protect itself. In order to help someone remember and allow them to process what happened to them, a therapist or psychiatrist might use a treatment approach such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which uses eye movement exercises to encourage patients to focus on their past trauma in brief spurts.

ASD, on the other hand, always occurs within one month of the incident. This means that the memories of it will always be much more fresh, and less recall will be required to process them.

By seeing a psychotherapist, people can confront the fears they’ve been haunted by since they were traumatized and learn how to feel safe again, something every person deserves.

Table of contents

What Are Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD? How Are They Different from One Another?

What Are the 9 Symptoms of Acute Stress? What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

Does Acute Stress Disorder Turn into PTSD?

What Are Risk Factors for Acute Stress Disorder? What Are Risk Factors for PTSD?

How Does Treatment Vary for ASD vs. PTSD?

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    1. Cahill, S. P., Ph. D., & Pontoski, K. (2005, April). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Acute Stress Disorder I. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004735/

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The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

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