Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) occurs within one month in an individual after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as a death, threat of death, serious injury or physical violation. ASD is characterized by the development of severe anxiety, fear, helplessness, or horror. An individual is unable to find pleasure in previously enjoyable activities, and frequently feels guilty about engaging in usual life tasks.


An individual is diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder if they demonstrate three of the following symptoms while experiencing or after experiencing the traumatic event. Symptoms must persist for a minimum of 3 days up to 4 weeks within a month of the trauma.

  • Sense of numbing, detachment, or lack of emotional response
  • A reduction in awareness of his/her surroundings
  • A sense of not being real
  • A sense of being dissociated from self
  • An inability to remember parts of the trauma
  • Increased state of awareness and arousal such as difficulty staying awake or falling asleep
  • Trouble experiencing pleasure
  • Repeatedly re-experiencing the event through recurring images, thoughts, dreams, flashbacks, or illusions
  • Purposeful avoidance of thoughts, emotions, conversations, places, or people that remind them of the trauma
  • Feelings of stress that impacts functionality, impairs them from pursuing necessary tasks or getting help


The immediate cause of ASD is exposure to trauma. Several factors influence the risk of developing Acute Stress Disorder after a trauma:

  • Age-older adults are less likely to develop ASD, possibly due to having more experience in dealing with painful events
  • Previous exposure-People who were exposed to abuse or trauma as a child are more likely to develop ASD as adults because these may produce long-lasting biochemical changes in the central nervous system
  • Biological vulnerability-certain brain hormone levels and structures are inherited and may increase susceptibility to ASD
  • Support Networks-People who have a network of close friends and relatives are less likely to develop ASD
  • Perception and interpretation- People who personalize the trauma or who aren’t able to have a balanced view of life may be at risk to develop ASD. They blame themselves for the trauma or generally may have a pessimistic view of the world.


Therapy for Acute Stress Disorder requires several types of treatment because it affects several systems of belief and meaning, interpersonal relationships and occupational functioning as well as physical well-being. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and journaling have been found effective. Medications can be used for individual symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and panic reactions. Immediate crisis intervention after a tragedy or natural disaster may help people avoid developing ASD.