What Is Acute Stress?

Acute stress isn’t like the normal stress that we all experience as a result of the pressures of work, family and other life obligations. Stress is a part of normal life that can be successfully managed with diet, exercise, appropriate sleep, time with loved ones and other pleasurable activities. Acute stress, however, is a psychological reaction to serious trauma, such as witnessing a death, suffering severe injury or being viciously attacked. Those who suffer from acute stress following a trauma are at increased risk for long-term psychological problems as a result of that trauma.

What is Acute Stress?

Acute stress occurs in people who have suffered a serious psychological trauma. Acute stress may be the result of witnessing the death of another person or being threatened with one’s own death. It may occur following a serious injury, a physical attack or a rape. Acute stress puts the traumatized person at risk for long term psychological problems, including post traumatic stress disorder; those who suffer from acute stress may find that life is never the same again.

Acute stress occurs when you suffer through a trauma that is so severe that your mind can’t cope with it. Your brain and body can’t cope with the stress involved, and as a result, emotions shut down. A person suffering from acute stress may feel numb and unable to connect with others or to feel involved in the world. Instead, those with acute stress feel that they’re reliving the traumatic event repeatedly in their minds, and become so consumed in their thoughts about it that they lose the ability to cope with the event or events and move on.

Consequences of Acute Stress

Acute stress is a serious psychological problem. Acute stress can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, concentration problems, depression and nervous breakdown. If acute stress isn’t treated promptly, the psychological effects can be severe and long lasting.

Symptoms of Acute Stress

Acute stress occurs only in those who’ve suffered a major psychological trauma. If you’re suffering from acute stress, you may experience feelings of numbness, detachment and anxiety. You might try to avoid anything that reminds you of the event that traumatized you. Acute stress may develop quickly into post traumatic stress disorder.

Treating Acute Stress

There’s more than one way to treat the psychological symptoms of acute stress. Traditional psychotherapy can be very useful in the treatment of acute stress. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is also an effective treatment for acute stress, especially for those whose acute stress has developed into post traumatic stress disorder or whose acute stress has produced lasting psychological damage in the form of anxiety or depression. CBT is often used in the treatment of phobias, because it forces patients to confront and learn to cope with their fears.

Some psychiatrists and doctors recommend the use of mood altering drugs in those with acute stress. Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications can help patients cope with acute stress during the recovery process.


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