Acute Stress Disorder

Katie W. Hsih, Dean MacKinnon, M.D.


  • Trauma- and stressor-related disorder with onset 3 days to 1 month after a traumatic event (direct exposure or indirectly experienced), characterized by intrusive memories, avoidance of associated stimuli, and changes in mood and arousal that impair daily functioning


  • Prevalence: occurs in 20-50% of victims or witnesses of trauma involving interpersonal assault (e.g., rape, witnessing a shooting), < 20% following trauma without interpersonal assault (e.g. motor vehicle accidents, traumatic brain injury, severe burns)
  • Risk factors: prior trauma, prior mental disorder, female gender, high neuroticism, avoidant coping, hyperarousal (e.g. elevated startle response)
  • Symptoms can vary across culture (e.g., ataque de nervios among Latin Americans)


Clinical Presentation

  • Re-experiencing of the traumatic event through intrusive and distressing memories, nightmares, flashbacks
  • Avoidance of reminders of trauma, which can induce emotional numbing as well as heightened reactivity
  • Catastrophic thoughts about role in traumatic event, response to exposure, or likelihood of future harm
  • Inability to experience positive emotions, but frequent negative emotions (e.g., fear, sadness, anger, guilt, shame)
  • Other signs: hyperarousal, poor concentration, insomnia, irritability, impulsive behavior

Tests and Procedures

  • Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a clinical diagnosis based on history and physical without a diagnostic laboratory test.
  • Screen for exposure to traumatic event considering the nature of the event and the patient’s response.
  • Identify comorbidities; rule out other explanations for symptoms.
  • Structured measurements: Stanford Acute Stress Reaction Questionnaire, Acute Stress Disorder Interview, Acute Stress Disorder Scale (more useful for assessing severity).
  • Elevated ASD or PTSD scale scores suggest increased risk for lasting PTSD symptoms.

Differential Diagnosis



  • Limited studies evaluating efficacy of treatment for ASD
  • Goals: reduce symptoms, improve functioning, rehabilitate sense of security, prevent PTSD
  • Consider early intervention with trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).


  • Antidepressants may reduce intrusion symptoms, avoidance, dissociation, hyperarousal, and comorbid psychiatric disorders.
  • Anticonvulsants may reduce intrusion symptoms.
  • Morphine for pain management during a critical illness or immediately following a physical trauma (including burns) may help prevent PTSD.
  • Stress-dose corticosteroids (e.g., hydrocortisone) may prevent PTSD in the context of critical illnesses like septic shock or during/following cardiac surgery.
  • Avoid acute use of benzodiazepines, which may paradoxically increase the risk for long-term PTSD symptoms.


  • Trauma-focused CBT
    • Patient education: normalize the stress response, increase the expectation of recovery
    • Exposure: in-imagination (reliving) and in vivo exposure to enable extinction learning; contraindicated with extreme avoidance/dissociation, suicidal risk, acute grief
    • Cognitive processing: reframe maladaptive appraisals about past trauma and future triggers
  • Address salient interpersonal issues such as changes in relationships, loss of trust, anger and aggression, as well as generalization of fears and threats.
  • Administer 2 weeks after exposure for 6 weekly individual sessions.
  • Time therapy with regard for other trauma-related events (e.g., pain, surgery, legal complications).


  • If patient is in acute distress immediately after exposure, stabilize with supportive care until psychologically and physiologically safe.
    • Probing questions or inadvertent reminders of the traumatic event may exacerbate distress.
    • After stabilization, establish education, early intervention, and case management.
  • Encourage reliance on patient’s internal strengths and existing support structures.
  • Address concurrent issues such as depression, suicidality, self-harm, substance abuse.
  • 25-50% of ASD cases will resolve without formal intervention.
    • This is an important point to emphasize with patients, who otherwise may be further distressed by the notion that they are fated to suffer an extended course.


  • Seek psychiatric care, particularly in cases of continued distress or potential for self-harm.


  • ASD can progress to PTSD if symptoms do not resolve within 1 month of exposure.


  • ASD was introduced in the DSM-IV to identify patients at risk for PTSD; criteria were narrower (notably requiring dissociative symptoms to be present) and did not reliably predict PTSD.
  • There is still uncertainty regarding factors that predict ASD or interventions that prevent PTSD.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  2. Barton KA, Blanchard EB, Hickling EJ. Antecedents and consequences of acute stress disorder among motor vehicle accident victims. Behav Res Ther. 1996;34(10):805-13.  [PMID:8952123]
  3. Benedek MB, Friedman MJ, Zatzick DF, Ursano RJ. (2009). Guideline watch (March 2009): practice guidelines for the treatment of patients with acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. American Psychiatric Association.
  4. Bryant RA, Harvey AG, Dang ST, Sackville T. (1998). Assessing acute stress disorder: psychometric properties of a structured clinical interview. Psychological Assessment 10(3), 215-220.
  5. Bryant, R. A. (2017). Acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. (pp. 161­-184). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/0000019­010
  6. Bryant RA, Harvey AG. Acute stress disorder: a critical review of diagnostic issues. Clin Psychol Rev. 1997;17(7):757-73.  [PMID:9397336]
  7. Bryant RA, Mastrodomenico J, Felmingham KL, et al. Treatment of acute stress disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(6):659-67.  [PMID:18519824]
  8. Bryant RA, Creamer M, O'Donnell M, et al. Acute and Chronic Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in the Emergence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Network Analysis. JAMA Psychiatry. 2017;74(2):135-142.  [PMID:28002832]
  9. Ehlers A, Clark DM. A cognitive model of posttraumatic stress disorder. Behav Res Ther. 2000;38(4):319-45.  [PMID:10761279]
  10. Gelpin E, Bonne O, Peri T, et al. Treatment of recent trauma survivors with benzodiazepines: a prospective study. J Clin Psychiatry. 1996;57(9):390-4.  [PMID:9746445]
  11. Gradus JL. Prevalence and prognosis of stress disorders: a review of the epidemiologic literature. Clin Epidemiol. 2017;9:251-260.  [PMID:28496365]
  12. Guthrie RM, Bryant RA. Auditory startle response in firefighters before and after trauma exposure. Am J Psychiatry. 2005;162(2):283-90.  [PMID:15677592]
  13. Howlett JR, Stein MB. Prevention of Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders: A Review. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016;41(1):357-69.  [PMID:26315508]
  14. Kornør H, Winje D, Ekeberg Ø, et al. Early trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy to prevent chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and related symptoms: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry. 2008;8:81.  [PMID:18801204]
  15. Nestadt, P.S., Speed, T.J., Keefe, F. J. and Dimsdale, J. E. (2017). “Stress and psychiatry”. In Kaplan and Sadock’s comprehensive textbook of psychiatry (10th ed.). Edited by: Sadock, B. J., Sadock, V. A., and Ruiz P.: Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott
  16. Ozer EJ, Best SR, Lipsey TL, et al. Predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder and symptoms in adults: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 2003;129(1):52-73.  [PMID:12555794]
  17. Ponniah K, Hollon SD. Empirically supported psychological treatments for adult acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder: a review. Depress Anxiety. 2009;26(12):1086-109.  [PMID:19957280]
  18. Ursano RJ, Bell C, Eth S, et al. Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2004;161(11 Suppl):3-31.  [PMID:15617511]
Last updated: July 1, 2017