A teen with blonde hair struggles with acute stress disorder and his friend comforts him

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder vs. Acute Stress Disorder—What’s the Difference?

7 min.

Some trauma survivors experience longer-lasting mental health outcomes, like post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder. Learn the difference between the conditions here.

By: Ashley Laderer

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Updated: December 20, 2023

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Table of Contents

If you’ve experienced a traumatic incident, you are not alone. While trauma is something that many people go through, it affects everyone differently, with some experiencing longer-lasting mental health outcomes, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder (ASD). PTSD and ASD are both trauma-related disorders that occur in response to a traumatic event and can impact the quality of life. However, the conditions are distinct in terms of their symptoms, treatment duration, and more. Below, we delve into the differences and similarities between PTSD and ASD and explore the best therapy for dealing with traumatic events

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What is acute stress disorder?

ASD includes disruptive trauma-response symptoms and negative mental health effects that last for at least three days to a month following a traumatic event. Put simply, the condition pops up quickly after a traumatic event and resolves relatively quickly, too. It’s estimated that as many as one-third of trauma survivors develop ASD. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a formal diagnosis of ASD includes a combination of the following symptoms:

  • Recurring distressing memories, nightmares, or negative dreams
  • Intense flashbacks of the traumatic experience
  • Having a low mood overall, struggling to feel any pleasant emotions
  • Dissociating (having an altered perception of yourself or your surroundings)
  • Difficulty remembering certain aspects of the traumatic event 
  • Avoiding memories, feelings, situations, or people that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Being on edge and hypervigilant or getting startled easily
  • Difficulty concentrating

What is post-traumatic stress disorder? 

PTSD is a chronic, trauma-related mental health condition that impacts peoples’ quality of life for months or years. It may emerge shortly after a traumatic event, but some people may not experience symptoms until months or even years later. About 6% of adults who have experienced trauma develop PTSD, according to experts. A formal PTSD diagnosis, according to the DSM-5, requires a combination of the following PTSD symptoms lasting over one month and significantly affecting your life:

  • Repeated distressing memories, flashbacks, or nightmares linked to the traumatic event
  • Emotional distress and physical symptoms when reminded of the traumatic incident
  • Avoiding or attempting to avoid internal reminders (such as memories or thoughts) and external reminders (such as people or places) of the traumatic experience
  • Difficulty remembering the traumatic incident
  • Persistent and drastic negative beliefs about yourself or others  
  • Blaming yourself or others for the trauma 
  • Losing interest in activities once enjoyed and feeling detached from other
  • Anger, aggression, and irritability
  • Being reckless or self-destructive 
  • Feeling hypervigilant or easily startled
  • Difficulty concentrating or sleeping 

Similarities between acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder

As you can see, there is a lot of overlap between ASD and PTSD. Some of the main similarities are as follows: 

Cause

Both ASD and PTSD occur in response to exposure to a traumatic event. 

Types of symptoms 

Both ASD and PTSD involve distressing symptoms that interfere with functioning and quality of life. The symptoms for both fall under the categories of intrusion, avoidance, mood, and arousal. Both may cause dissociative symptoms, as well.

Complications

Both ASD and PTSD can increase your risk and lead to the development of other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, or substance use disorder. 

Differences between acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder

So, how does ASD differ from PTSD? Here are some key differences to help you set them apart:

Symptom onset

ASD always has an early onset after a traumatic event, meaning the symptoms come on relatively quickly after the trauma exposure. With PTSD, symptoms may crop up soon after the trauma exposure, but they may not develop until much later—including months or years later.

Mood symptoms

PTSD is associated with more negative mood symptoms than ASD. The sole mood-related symptom linked with ASD is having a low mood overall or struggling to feel any pleasant emotions. By contrast, the diagnostic criteria for PTSD include many negative mood symptoms, including irritability, anger, and aggression. 

Duration of symptoms

As its name suggests, ASD (standing for acute stress disorder) is acute or short-term. The symptoms will last up to a month only. On the other hand, PTSD is more long-term and chronic. To be diagnosed with PTSD, your symptoms have to have been occurring for at least a month. After that, symptoms can last for months or years.

ASD can potentially lead to PTSD, but PTSD does not lead to acute stress disorder. The American Psychiatric Association says about half of people who have ASD will subsequently develop PTSD.

Duration of treatment

Since ASD is acute and short-term, mental health treatment will be less time-consuming than PTSD treatment. However, someone with ASD might choose to remain in therapy after their ASD symptoms resolve to work on other aspects of themselves or address any other mental health conditions. People with PTSD will need more treatment long term since their symptoms last much longer. It is also more likely for someone with PTSD to need long-term medication. 

What are the treatment options for acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder?

Although treatment length may vary, the treatment for ASD and PTSD itself is similar: therapy and psychiatric medications are the main treatment options for both trauma-related disorders. Everybody is different, but in many cases, a combination of trauma-informed therapy and medication is considered the best form of treatment for those with ASD and PTSD. Here’s more on the best treatment options for ASD and PTSD: 

Trauma-informed therapy 

When working with a therapist, it’s key to choose someone who is trauma-informed. This means that they are familiar with the signs and symptoms of trauma, understand how impactful trauma can be, validate your experience, and know the best and safest ways to support you. Some trauma-informed therapy modalities are as follows:

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) 

TF-CBT is specifically designed for children and teens who are trauma survivors. Like typical CBT, this therapy helps you become more conscious and aware of your thoughts and feelings related to trauma, allowing you to reframe negative beliefs and address unhealthy behaviors. You will learn coping skills to deal with distorted thoughts and stress. 

Exposure therapy

As discussed, trauma can make people with both ASD and PTSD avoid people, places, situations, or memories that remind them of the traumatic event. To combat this, exposure therapy allows people to safely revisit these triggers with the support of a mental health professional. When you expose yourself to these triggers with a therapist, you will work towards desensitizing yourself to your triggers so they don’t cause such a strong emotional or physical reaction going forward. 

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a unique form of therapy that utilizes your eye movements to help you process your triggering emotional memories, often associated with trauma. When done correctly with a therapist, this method can help you process trauma more quickly.

Medication

Your therapist may refer you to a psychiatrist, a mental health professional who can prescribe medications if they think you could benefit from them. The most common medications that psychiatrists prescribe for ASD and PTSD are antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. These drugs can help to manage and reduce your symptoms alongside your work in therapy.

However, it’s important to note that it can take a few weeks, at least, for antidepressants to kick in and for you to feel a difference, so be patient and make sure to bring up any concerns with your provider. It may also take some trial and error to figure out what the best medication or combination of medications is for your ASD or PTSD. Your doctor will also consider any other co-occurring mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder or depression, when coming up with your treatment plan.

A teen gets medication as a treatment option for PTSD.

Lifestyle changes

On top of therapy and meds, it’s crucial to take care of yourself post-trauma. Making some little changes to your lifestyle and practicing self-care can make a positive impact on how you feel.

Here are some ways you can do this: 

  • Stay active and get at least 15 minutes of physical activity every day 
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet
  • Get enough good quality sleep
  • Refrain from drugs and alcohol
  • Maintain a strong social support system
  • Use a creative outlet for your emotions, such as art or music 
  • Meditate or practice mindfulness

Support for acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder at Charlie Health 

If you’re struggling with the mental health effects of past traumatic events, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based, trauma-informed therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing your ASD or PTSD symptoms is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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