A teen with acute stress disorder sits at her laptop in the dark

What Is Acute Stress Disorder and How Does It Affect Teens?

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Are you dealing with unpleasant mental health symptoms after a traumatic event? If so, you might have acute stress disorder.

Clinically Reviewed By:
Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

For better or worse, our lives are extremely unpredictable. While plenty of amazing things can happen to us, some not-so-great stuff can happen, too. Sometimes, when something horrible occurs, it can rattle our world and result in trauma––occasionally, long-lasting trauma.

Although some people are able to bounce back from troublesome life events pretty quickly, others are more deeply affected, which can lead to negative mental health consequences, some of which may linger long-term. One example of this is acute stress disorder (ASD). In a nutshell, acute stress disorder refers to the negative mental health effects in the aftermath of a traumatic incident.

If you’ve recently experienced a traumatic event and are noticing mental health symptoms that are distressing and causing a negative impact on your life, it’s possible that you have acute stress disorder.

Here’s what you need to know about what acute stress disorder is, its symptoms, causes, and treatment. 

What is teen acute stress disorder?

Acute stress disorder can happen to anyone––children, teens, and adults alike. It involves having significant traumatic response symptoms after a traumatic event occurs. According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), acute stress disorder is defined by symptoms that last for at least three days or up to a month after the trauma exposure.

When it comes to diagnosing an acute stress disorder in teens, the DSM-5 has outlined five categories, with fourteen possible symptoms associated with acute stress disorder. In order for someone to be diagnosed with ASD, they have to experience at least nine of these symptoms. The categories and accompanying symptoms are as follows:

1. Intrusion

  • Recurring memories that are distressing
  • Recurring dreams or nightmares 
  • Intense flashbacks where you feel like you are reliving the traumatic incident
  • Experiencing significant distress when exposed to things that remind you of the traumatic event 

2. Negative mood

  • Having an overall low mood and being unable to feel pleasant emotions

3. Dissociative 

  • Dissociating or having a sense that your experience is separate from your actual surroundings (for example, seeing yourself “out of body” or feeling like the time around you has slowed down)
  • Being unable to remember certain aspects of the traumatic incidents 

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4. Avoidance

  • Attempting to internally avoid anything that reminds you of the traumatic incident, including memories and feelings 
  • Attempting to externally avoid anything that reminds you of the traumatic incident, such as places, situations, or people that might trigger any distressing memories or feelings

5. Arousal 

  • Trouble falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Irritability and aggression 
  • Being hypervigilant/on edge
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Being easily startled 

These symptoms are very troubling and can cause serious distress in your life. For example, you might find yourself experiencing difficulty concentrating or keeping up in school, or you may not be interested in socializing and feel like you’re pulling away from your friend group. The symptoms may cause you to isolate, and you may feel very alone in what you’re experiencing. 

However, it is important to remember that you are not alone in this pain you’re feeling. Studies have shown that anywhere between 6%-33% of trauma survivors develop acute stress disorder. Furthermore, certain people with specific risk factors are more likely to get ASD. This includes folks who have been previously diagnosed with PTSD or any other mental health conditions, or people who have experienced past instances of trauma. 

What are the causes of teen acute stress disorder?

Essentially, any major traumatic event can cause teen acute stress disorder. The DSM-5 says trauma related to ASD involves, “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation.” Of course, this varies greatly from person to person.

Some examples of traumatic events that could result in ASD are:

  • Child abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Car accidents
  • Someone threatening you with weapons
  • Natural disasters
  • Fires
  • Being a victim of a crime
  • Being kidnapped
  • Exposure to a terrorist attack
  • Receiving a diagnosis of a life-threatening condition

While for many people with acute stress disorder, the traumatic event happened directly to them, this isn’t always the case. You can develop this disorder if you’ve witnessed these events happen firsthand to other people, learned that something happened to a loved one, or been repeatedly exposed to specific details of the incidents.

There is no telling how you will react to a traumatic incident, whether or not it happened directly to you. Some people will be more affected than others. It comes down to the individual and how their unique brain processes the trauma. 

A teen girl in a white shirt sits on a couch hugging her knees into her chest looking sad.

What is the link between teen acute stress disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? 

There is a direct link between acute stress disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. That being said, just because you have ASD does not guarantee that you will develop PTSD in the near future or later in life. According to the American Psychiatric Association, around half of people diagnosed with ASD will go on to develop PTSD. 

Acute stress disorder symptoms and PTSD symptoms are very similar. If you are experiencing ASD symptoms that aren’t improving after a month, and if you are not seeking treatment, there is a chance your condition could progress to PTSD. That’s why it’s so important to open up about your experience and get help through mental health services now so that you will be more likely to feel better later. 

Aside from PTSD, ASD may also lead to the development of other mental health conditions such as:

Ultimately, more research is needed specifically surrounding teen acute stress disorder and what it can lead to, especially long term. There is a greater understanding and larger body of research surrounding ASD and PTSD in adults as opposed to research about kids and teens. 

What is the treatment for teen acute stress disorder?

Effective treatment is available for teen acute stress disorder. Like with many mental health conditions, treatment often involves various aspects. Most commonly, the following treatment modalities will be used:

Therapy

Although it can feel super daunting and intimidating to openly discuss the traumatic things that have happened to you, talking about the events with a trained mental health professional can help you process the incidents and move forward while learning healthy ways to cope. Research shows that trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective first line of treatment for ASD. Not only does this help you deal with the symptoms you’re facing now, but it also prevents PTSD from forming. It’s important to work with a trauma-informed therapist who can best understand your struggles and know how to navigate the situation. 

For people who are avoiding certain feelings, memories, places, people, things, or situations due to fear of being triggered, exposure therapy may be used as well. This is a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy that helps you safely expose yourself to these things in order to ultimately feel less triggered and a lessened trauma response.

Medications

For some people, therapy alone is not enough, and a psychiatrist may decide that psychiatric medication may benefit you. SSRI antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed meds for this situation. A psychiatrist may be more likely to prescribe you these if you have co-occurring conditions, such as an anxiety disorder or depression.

Lifestyle changes

Making changes to your overall lifestyle, staying physically healthy, and practicing self-care can have a positive impact on your mental health, especially while you’re coping with trauma and ASD. Some examples of this include:

  • Staying active and aiming for at least 15 minutes of physical activity each day
  • Eating a balanced healthy diet
  • Getting enough quality sleep
  • Avoiding substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Having a strong social support system
  • Finding a creative outlet for your emotions, like music or art
  • Practicing mindfulness

People with acute stress disorder have a higher risk of suicidality. If the emotional pain you’re feeling right now seems like too much to handle and you’re having thoughts about harming yourself or contemplating suicide, it’s important to reach out for help immediately. There are free and confidential resources that are available 24/7 for those experiencing a mental health crisis, including:

  • 988: 988 is the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 9-8-8 to be connected with a trained crisis counselor in your area. An online chat option is available, too.
  • Crisis Text Line: Crisis Text Line is a text message-based service. Just text HOME to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. You can even do this on WhatsApp. 
  • The Trevor Project: If you’re part of the LGBTQIA+ community and hoping for crisis support from someone who specializes in the unique challenges you face, The Trevor Project is a great resource. Call them at 1-866-488-7386, text them ‘START’ to 678-678, or use their online chat.

Please note that these are for immediate help in the case of a mental health emergency, but they are not a substitute for formal mental health treatment. It is crucial to seek treatment from a trained mental health professional like a therapist or psychiatrist after your crisis so you can get the help you need and learn to cope with the difficult emotions you are feeling.

How Charlie Health can help

If you’re a teen or young adult and you think you might have acute stress disorder or any other mental health conditions, Charlie Health may be able to help. 

We know that every individual has their own unique mental health journey depending on what type of trauma they have experienced, the symptoms they currently have, and the life difficulties they face. Our personalized intensive outpatient program provides mental health treatment for teens, young adults, and families dealing with a variety of struggles, including acute stress disorder and any other co-occurring conditions. 

At Charlie Health, every client is matched with a therapist who fits their specific needs, and will also be matched with a group of peers who are from similar backgrounds with similar struggles. 

Coping with acute stress disorder can be difficult and scary at times, but it is absolutely possible for people with ASD to push forward and heal from trauma to experience a higher quality of life and improved mental health. Help is here now. Get started.

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