Acute Stress Reaction: Symptoms, Risk Factors and Treatments

Similar to PTSD but with a limited duration, acute stress reaction is the unwanted intrusion of memories that are the result of a traumatic event which can begin approximately four weeks after the event and can last anywhere from a few days to four weeks. Acute stress reaction can be brought on by experiencing or witnessing a particularly overwhelming traumatic event that can create fear, helplessness and horror.

What Are the Symptoms of Acute Stress Reaction?

There are a number of symptoms of acute stress reaction and some can be quite unsettling to the sufferer. These symptoms include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Reckless or aggressive behavior that can be self-destructive
  • Avoiding anything that can trigger memories of the event
  • Feeling emotionally numb or detached from others
  • Recurrent flashbacks or dreams that can be intrusive
  • Psychological symptoms such as irritability, depression, anxiety or wanting to be left alone
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating

What Causes Acute Stress Reaction?

The typical cause of acute stress reaction is exposure a significant trauma. The types of trauma include the threat to your life or of serious injury, learning of the death or serious injury of a loved one, or witnessing the death or serious injury of a loved one. The impact the trauma has is determined by the cause, extent or scope of the event. Accidents and natural disasters have less impact than human-inflicted acts of terrorism or violence, but can still produce acute stress reaction. The leading cause of mental disorders related to stress in the United States is car accidents with 25% of Americans likely to be involved in a car accident that results in serious injury.

Risk Factors:

There are several risk factors for developing acute stress reaction. These include:

  • Previous exposure to a significant trauma or abuse early in life
  • Older people are more likely to develop acute stress reaction
  • Certain inherited brain abnormalities that can cause chemical changes to the brain
  • People who feel an inappropriate responsibility to trauma may see the event as a punishment or those who generally have negative views on things
  • People who have a supportive network of relatives and close friends

Events that can trigger an episode of acute stress reaction include:

  • The threat of serious injury to yourself or others
  • The threat to the physical integrity to yourself or others
  • The threat of death to yourself or others
  • Death of others

Treatment for Acute Stress Reaction

In many cases treatment isn’t necessary for acute stress reaction because it has a limited time frame. Generally understanding the cause of the stress response and talking about it with someone is enough. However there are some strategies and treatments that may help those with prolonged or more severe symptoms. These treatments include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This form of treatment involves talking to a therapist about the traumatic event and your feelings about what happened. The therapist helps you understand any pattern of thinking, including ideas that can be harmful. The goal is to enable you to change your way of thinking and avoid the harmful thoughts or ideas.
  • Counseling: This also involves talking to a therapist or social worker if your symptoms persist or are severe. It can help you find ways to deal with the event and any thoughts or feelings you are dealing with.
  • Medications: In some cases, medications might be necessary to help with more severe symptoms of stress reactions. Beta-blockers can help alleviate any physical symptoms you may have due to the stress reaction and they aren’t addictive like pain killers and tranquilizers. A tranquilizer may be prescribed for short-term use in severe cases.
  • Other Treatments: Other treatments for acute stress reaction include individual psychotherapy, desensitization therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. All are designed to help you deal with the traumatic event and any of the feelings or stress reactions that have resulted from that trauma.

How to Manage Your Stress

Managing stress is important for mental and physical health. Stress management involves taking charge of your feelings and surroundings as well as changing how you react to stressful situations. An important part of stress management is remembering the four A’s:

  • Avoid any unnecessary stress by staying away from people or situations that can stress you out. Learning how to say no will help you distinguish between things you should do and things you must do. In this way, you can eliminate many things that create stress.
  • Alter the situation if you can’t avoid it. Don’t bottle up your feelings. Instead, deal with them head on. Be assertive and let others know of any concerns you may have. There will usually be room for compromise in a given situation.
  • Adapt to whatever is causing you stress if you can’t change the situation. Focus on the positives by looking at the problem from a different angle. If a certain task adds stress, focus on the big picture. Ask yourself if it is really something to be getting worried about.
  • Accept those things that cannot be changed. There will always be situations causing stress that you can’t do anything about. Rather than getting upset, learn to accept the inevitable and look for the positive side of things. Many situations offer a chance for growth and accept that no one is perfect.

Strengthening your physical health can help you better cope with stress. Regular exercise can help prevent stress and help your body better manage the effects. Physical activity also helps relieve tension.

Eating a healthy diet helps give your body the nutrients to stay strong and better cope with the effects of stress. If you’re tired you are more likely to suffer from stress, so make sure you get plenty of sleep. Relaxation techniques are an important way to help you better manage stress. Practices such as yoga, breathing exercises and meditation can all help relieve tension, reduce stress and help you relax.

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