Most of us will experience multiple traumatic events throughout the course of our lives. It goes without saying that it’s totally normal and expected that these experiences can rock your mental and physical health. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for PTSD reports that, following a traumatic experience, 6 to 33 percent of trauma survivors develop acute stress disorder (ASD): a mental health condition that lasts three days to one month after a traumatic incident. Though Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD have long been associated with combat veterans, anyone can develop PTSD from life-threatening or scary situations. Much like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), people experiencing Acute Stress Disorder have almost identical symptoms, including dissociation, anxiety, reliving the traumatic event, insomnia, and more. How a traumatic experience turns into PTSD, however, is when these symptoms continue.
“The symptoms of both PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder are the same. The only difference is how long the symptoms last," Dr. Danielle Forshee, a psychologist and LCSW, tells Bustle. "For example, when someone is exposed to an actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation, the individual should always be diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder first in the event they have symptoms. If the symptom pattern in Acute Stress Disorder does not resolve within one month, the diagnosis has changed to PTSD.”
Of course, it’s important to understand that everyone will have a different emotional reaction and stress response to trauma. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that risk factors for PTSD — such as childhood trauma, having a history of mental illness, getting injured, and witnessing extreme violence or death — can make you more likely to develop PTSD than other people who are exposed to trauma. While dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic experience is difficult for everyone, there are therapist-approved steps you can take to stop a traumatic experience from becoming PTSD. Even if you aren't a combat veteran, you can experience trauma — and you deserve to get help for it.
If you have just been exposed to a traumatic experience, Dr. Forshee suggests you should first and foremost seek out any kind of crisis intervention services. “The function of crisis intervention is to help restore a balance to their psychological, emotional functioning and to minimize the potential for long-term psychological trauma. Typically, when it comes to experiencing a significant trauma, such as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence, your local police departments, hospitals, and mental health agencies have access to crisis intervention specialists that can be contacted 24/7, and provide a phone or in person response to assist the individual exposed to the trauma,” says Dr. Forshee. If you are unsure how to access your local services, try calling a 24-hour phone service like the National Sexual Assault Hotline or the Disaster Distress Helpline to connect you with a trained staff member and the resources you need.
“You can expect to meet with a crisis intervention specialist within a few hours of exposure to the trauma. This is typically a one on one meeting between you and the specialist and you can expect to meet with this person one to two times total,” Dr. Forshee explains. “The purpose of the crisis intervention specialist is to deal with only the crisis that is going on. They are not people you will be seeing for ongoing counseling. Research does support that crisis intervention can help minimize and prevent long term psychological trauma.”
Moreover, Dr. Nick Hobson, PhD, the Science Director at PsychologyCompass.com, tells Bustle it's important for people experiencing acute stress disorder to address their emotions upfront. "Do not avoid reliving the pain and traumatic experience. For many people, the default response is to distract, suppress, push away, etc. But, research finds that these avoidance type behaviors only amplifies the acute anxiety down the road. It’s a paradoxical rebound effect," he explains.
Instead of avoiding your feelings, Dr. Hobson says to "create a designated time and space for the negative emotions to arise and be felt." He adds, "Welcoming the pain is important as your brain begins to reprocess the traumatic event. As you open up for these emotional 'office hours,' be aware of all the feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc. without judgment. For five to ten minutes, simply notice and accept them."
Additionally, Dr. Forshee suggests to connect with your close family, friends, and peers as soon as possible — and consider having loved ones stay with you while you emotionally and/or physically recover. “After you have met with the crisis intervention specialist immediately after the traumatic event and after you get home, it is important to surround yourself with your support network,” she explains. “In the days following exposure to a traumatic event, you may have thoughts and memories that re-create the experience of the trauma which will cause you to feel anxious or depressed, and make it difficult for you to sleep, have an appetite or take care of yourself in ways that you were able to before the trauma. Having your support network around you, and taking shifts in spending time with you, will help.”
Lastly, it is super important to get in touch with a mental health professional to schedule follow-up appointments with. If you are already seeing a trusted therapist, that may help make this step a little easier. However, Dr. Forshee says to “contact mental health providers in your area who specialize in the treatment of trauma.” She adds that, “Receiving ongoing professional help shortly after exposure to a trauma, compared to waiting a while, will help in preventing longer-term symptoms. How? The professional will provide education about symptoms of trauma as well as multiple methods and interventions to manage the symptoms you are already experiencing.”
According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS), research has showed going to at least six cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions in the weeks following a nonsexual assault, car accident, or industrial accident helped prevent acute stress disorder from developing into chronic PTSD. In addition to therapeutic intervention, Dr. Hobson says pharmacological interventions can be used to ease symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder, and PTSD, but that "any drug related interventions should be first discussed with your doctor or healthcare provider."
Everyone is unique, and your emotional response to a traumatic experience can completely differ than someone else’s — even if they went through a similar experience. However, taking immediate action after a trauma, and reaching out to both personal and professional supports will help you better overcome the symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder, and prevent it from impacting you in the long run.