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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)

PTSD and ASD are two conditions that can be caused by experiencing or witnessing almost any kind of deep emotional trauma, especially one that is unexpected. For many, PTSD and ASD are the body’s natural response to trauma – a normal, instinctive coping mechanism. While healthcare professionals and counselors are aware of the symptoms and signs of ASD or PTSD, many trauma survivors don’t seek help because they may not fully understand changes within as the result of a traumatic experience. There also remains the stigma of being diagnosed with a mental health condition or mental illness. While labels often do create stigma and other barriers, understanding when trauma has caused PTSD and ASD can be helpful to understand the trauma response, discuss options to heal and manage through that process, and to have insurance coverage for any behavioral health services that might be explored.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Millions of people suffer from PTSD, a widely recognized condition that can result from virtually any type of trauma – from enduring years of domestic violence to an experience of war. It is not known why some develop PTSD following trauma while others do not. An individual’s history, life circumstances, personal traits, and genetics likely play some role in determining the risk of PTSD, as does the nature of the trauma itself. Some may have stronger resilience factors that help to lessen the risk of PTSD from trauma. Approximately 8 percent of men and 20 percent of women develop PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD include emotional numbness, restlessness, anxiety, uncharacteristic irritability or even violent behavior, problems focusing or concentrating, flashbacks (which can be triggered by people, places, things, sounds, smells, etc.), and sleep disturbance. People experiencing PTSD often feel isolated, disconnected, and “different” from others, and it can even begin to affect the most routine activities of everyday life. Symptoms typically surface within three months following a traumatic event and may dissipate within a few months. For some, the symptoms may not surface for years. Some suffer chronic, unrelenting symptoms, while others notice that symptoms come and go, increasing and decreasing in severity over time. In addition, children with PTSD may experience difficulty learning, or memory or attention problems, and may be at a higher risk for self-injury or other coping behaviors.

Healing from PTSD

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for PTSD. However, there is hope, as most sufferers see notable improvement given the right combination of support, therapy or counseling, and time. For many, the most significant healing happens when they can connect with a safe, compassionate, empathetic friend. While many psychotropic drugs have been known to have negative side effects like dependency, weight gain, suicidality, and even a shorter lifespan because of their effects on overall health, doctors may want to prescribe to manage some of the symptoms. In situations where medications are used, it is especially important for survivors to understand other options and potential risks for taking the drugs. Symptoms can often be managed in other ways, but they need to be recognized and related to the trauma.

Typically, PTSD treatment may include:

  • cognitive-behavior therapy, which is intended to help survivors minimize their symptoms by learning to change the way they think about and react to their thoughts surrounding the trauma;
  • group therapy;
  • family therapy;
  • peer support from a person who has lived through similar a experience and established some level of recovery; or
  • if other options don’t work or the symptoms are severe, prescription medications can help to mitigate depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, or other invasive symptoms.

Some have also found relief through alternative healing methods such as yoga, Reiki, acupuncture, or meditation. Every person is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to healing from trauma.

Seeking help and support is better to do sooner than later, because if left unaddressed, symptoms can lead to longer-term physiological shifts that are more difficult to treat. In addition, most experts agree that those with PTSD are at a much higher risk of substance abuse, which may not only impede healing, but can create additional problems that may make the healing process more difficult.

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)

ASD was officially assigned a diagnostic category in 1994, to differentiate it from the more widely recognized PTSD. ASD shares many of  same characteristics as PTSD, including emotional numbness, restlessness, anxiety, uncharacteristic irritability, problems focusing or concentrating, flashbacks, and sleep disturbance. In fact, some experts consider ASD a variation of PTSD.

However, there are two important distinctions between ASD and PTSD:

  1. ASD is a more immediate, short-term response to trauma that lasts between two days and four weeks. If ASD symptoms persist for more than a month, then PTSD may be diagnosed.
  2. ASD is more associated with dissociative symptoms, which may include:
  • extreme emotional disconnection;
  • difficulty experiencing pleasure;
  • temporary amnesia, or “dissociative amnesia” if the loss of memory centers more around the traumatic event itself;
  • depersonalization (survivors feel detached from their traumatic experience); and
  • derealization (survivors’ worlds seems strange and unfamiliar, and they may feel as though things are unreal).People suffering from ASD may become extremely withdrawn and may not feel like socializing, and they may exhibit a mental or emotional “distance” between themselves and their violent experience. If they do speak about the traumatic experience, it may be in a dispassionate manner, using distant-sounding or overly generic terms. Many experts agree that this is a coping mechanism, representing a quest for immediate emotional “survival” – survivors may not be ready to address what happened because it is too painful and recent.

Diagnosis and Treatment

There are fewer well-established methods for testing and identification of ASD than for PTSD. In general, a diagnosis of ASD will depend upon:

  • whether the individual experienced a traumatic event within four weeks prior to the first sign of symptoms;
  • the length of time that the individual has experienced the symptoms (typically, ASD is the diagnosis only if the symptoms last between two days and four weeks);
  • whether the  significantly and adversely affect everyday activities; and
  • the individual’s personal and medical history (including a physical examination to exclude other illnesses that may be causing the symptoms).

Typically, treatment for ASD includes antidepressant medication(s) and short-term psychotherapy. Some have also found relief through alternative healing practices like yoga, Reiki, acupuncture, and meditation.

Many experts agree that those with untreated ASD are at a substantially higher risk for developing PTSD and substance abuse problems.

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