What is acute stress disorder?

Acute stress disorder is a sudden reaction to an intensely stressful and potentially traumatic event such as an injury, accident, loss of a loved one, news of a life-altering medical diagnosis, domestic violence, or natural disaster. These events are emotionally upsetting and impact us on a cognitive, behavioural, and somatic level. It is the most common type of stress, and most reactions resolve themselves within a month. However, acute stress can sometimes be followed by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if not processed effectively.

Common signs and symptoms of acute stress disorder

Symptoms develop quickly within hours or days of the incident and usually last anywhere between three days to one month. Symptoms may appear in several ways.


  • Intrusive or recurring memories or flashbacks
  • Disturbing dreams or nightmares of the event


  • Sadness or despair
  • Feeling numb or detached from your emotions


  • Avoiding people, places, or things that remind you of the event
  • Avoiding memories or thoughts of the event
  • Withdrawing from others


  • Feeling detached or unresponsive to your surroundings


  • Anxiety (rapid heart rate, shaking, sweating)
  • Hyperventilation
  • Problems with concentration or memory
  • Feeling irritable or angry
  • Increased sensitivity to loud or sudden noises

Acute stress disorder in children and adolescents may appear in different ways. It is common for children to experience body-focused symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches. There may also be behavioural changes such as increased oppositional behaviour, clinginess, hyperactivity, tantrums, concentration problems, social withdrawal, irritability, bedwetting, or sleep problems. In adolescents, increased risk-taking behaviour or substance use is common.

Strategies for managing acute stress:

  • Surround yourself with trusted loved ones who make you feel safe and secure
  • Eat a balanced diet, focus on getting a good sleep, and exercise regularly
  • Make time for social connections
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as guided meditation, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or yoga
  • Record your thoughts and feelings in a journal or express them through an art form you enjoy
  • Avoid numbing agents such as alcohol or recreational drugs

If your symptoms are particularly upsetting and start to affect your health, relationships, ability to function in daily life, your job, or overall well-being, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional. Speaking about your experience helps to process it, leading to a reduction in distressing symptoms and improved ability to cope with what happened. It also helps to prevent acute stress disorder from turning into PTSD, which requires additional treatment. Any of our counsellors would be happy to speak more about acute stress disorder and treatment options. Please reach out to schedule a free 15-minute consultation to meet with our Nanaimo Counsellors and Counselling in Port Alberni, if you feel acute stress is affecting you or a loved one.

Written by Cat Zydyk


World Health Organization: Eastern Mediterranean Region. (2023). Acute stress disorder.

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