Understanding Acute Stress - Symptoms, Causes, and Management Techniques

June 5, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Think about the last time you were in a frightening or stress-inducing situation. Not something like having too many deadlines at work, but something that was immediately scary – like almost getting into a car accident or finding out you may be losing your job.

When this happened, you may have felt some changes in your body. Your heart might have started beating faster, and you may have tensed your body to brace yourself for whatever was coming. These physical changes are part of a human response called acute stress.

Isolated incidents of acute stress are typically far less damaging to health than chronic stress. In some cases, people can develop acute stress disorder after a traumatic event. Acute stress disorder is a short-term mental health condition, but the risk of it developing into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is high.

In this article, we’ll review the differences between acute and chronic stress, the symptoms of acute stress disorder, and how you can help calm yourself if you have an acute stress response.

What is acute stress?

Acute stress is the emotional reaction you experience in the face of an immediate danger or stress. To fully understand acute stress, it’s helpful to compare it with chronic stress – which most of us are familiar with.

Acute stress vs. chronic stress

Chronic stress builds up over time. Big and small stressors – including relationship troubles, work deadlines, and so on – can cause your stress levels to rise, causing chronic stress. When people talk about being under a lot of stress, they’re usually referring to chronic stress.

Chronic stress might not severely disrupt your life right away – for example, you may be able to continue working – but over time, it’s been shown to be incredibly damaging to your overall health and well-being.

Acute stress, on the other hand, is immediate. It doesn’t build up over time – it’s your body’s physiological response to situations it perceives as dangerous or threatening. This is often called the “fight-or-flight response” (which researchers now understand more accurately as the “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response”).

Acute stress, as long as it doesn’t develop into something more serious, is typically simple to deal with as it’s temporary.

Signs of acute stress

Acute stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for many body functions you don’t even consider – things like your heartbeat and metabolic changes.

Acute stress is the human body’s way of protecting itself. The changes in your body during the acute stress response help you be ready to fight or flee from the perceived threat.

The involuntary changes that happen in your body during an acute stress response include[1]:

  • Your heart starts beating faster to pump blood to your muscles and vital organs.
  • Your blood vessels narrow to direct blood away from unimportant tasks and toward the parts of your body necessary to combat the danger.
  • A faster heart rate and narrowed blood vessels lead to higher blood pressure.
  • You start taking quicker breaths, which supplies more oxygen into the bloodstream.
  • Your eyes dilate, and your vision becomes sharper.
  • Your muscles get tense to prepare for action.
  • Your liver gets more sugar into the bloodstream, which gives you energy.
  • Your adrenal glands pump out stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones affect many other body parts to get you ready to fight or flee. For example, adrenaline and cortisol temporarily suppress “non-vital” body processes like your immune system.
  • You may start to sweat, which helps regulate body temperature while battling the danger.

The acute stress response (and the physical changes that accompany it) aren’t inherently “bad.” They serve a purpose—to protect us from real and perceived threats.

What is acute stress disorder?

Generally, acute stress is a natural human response to a scary situation. But in some instances, it can become acute stress disorder, which is a short-term mental health condition closely related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Acute stress disorder can develop any time during the first month after a traumatic event and can last for up to 3 months[2].

The symptoms of acute stress disorder include:

  • Being on edge all the time or hypervigilant, like waiting for something terrible to happen.
  • Being jumpy or easily startled
  • Memories, nightmares, or flashbacks related to the traumatic event
  • A consistent negative or depressed mood, feeling detached, or an inability to experience positive emotions.
  • Feelings of dissociation, which is an altered sense of reality, like you’re living outside of yourself.
  • Being unable to remember important aspects of the traumatic event
  • Avoid thinking about or remembering the traumatic event at all costs; avoid any people or places that remind you of the event.
  • Having trouble sleeping, including nightmares
  • Irritability or angry outbursts
  • Difficulty concentrating

What causes acute stress disorder?

The leading cause of acute stress disorder is exposure to an acutely stressful situation. You can’t develop acute stress disorder if you haven’t been exposed to something traumatic, like:

  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Witnessing violence
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Living in a war zone or going into combat
  • Serious accidents or injury

On top of this component, some people seem to be at higher risk of developing acute stress disorder than others. Some risk factors include having prior trauma, tending towards an avoidant coping style, or having limited social support[3].

Acute stress disorder vs. PTSD

Acute stress disorder and PTSD are very similar. They share the same symptoms, like hyperarousal, flashbacks, nightmares, and avoidance of triggers.

The main difference between PTSD and acute stress disorder is the length of time symptoms are present. Acute stress disorder is diagnosed when the person has been experiencing these symptoms for less than three months. When the symptoms continue even after three months, then a diagnosis of PTSD may be warranted[4].

However, the two are highly linked. Research shows that up to 80% of people with acute stress disorder will develop PTSD (meaning their symptoms will continue past the 3-month mark)[5].

How to deal with acute stress

Acute stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be uncomfortable. The acute stress response isn’t meant to be activated all the time. If you’re still experiencing an activated stress response days, weeks, or even months after the stressful event has passed, then it’s time to intervene.

In some cases, acute stress may go away with some simple self-care tips. In other cases – like when it develops into acute stress disorder or PTSD – professional mental health treatment may be required.

Here are three evidence-based tips for coping with acute stress.

Practice relaxing intentionally

The counterpart to the acute stress response is the relaxation response. This is when the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and reverses the changes caused by the stress response, bringing your body back to baseline.

Sometimes, your body will take care of that for you. For example, after having a close encounter while driving, you may feel your heart rate spike but then slow down again once you realize you are safe.

But other times – especially when you live with acute stress disorder or PTSD – it’s necessary to activate the relaxation response and deactivate acute stress intentionally. Fortunately, this is a skill anyone can learn and practice.

Breathing is one of the most effective ways to activate the relaxation response. When you’re under acute stress, your breathing speeds up to get more oxygen out to your muscles. You can relax by intentionally slowing down your breathing.

Try a breathing technique called 4-7-8: breathe in through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, and exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound for eight counts. Repeat several times. This forces your body to relax and deactivates the acute stress response.

Grounding

Grounding techniques benefit dissociative symptoms or when feeling you’re not quite in your own skin. Dissociation is very common for people with acute stress disorder. When you start feeling outside of yourself in this way, ground yourself by connecting to the here and now. Grounding is about becoming more aware of your body and the world around you rather than getting lost in thoughts and flashbacks.

You can use many grounding techniques, a popular one being the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Find a comfortable place to practice.

5 – First, find five things you can see around you. Notice them and name them.
4 – Find four things you can hear. You may have to listen carefully to hear all of the sounds.
3 – Find three things you can touch and feel from where you’re sitting. What do they feel like? What textures do they have? Focus on the feeling.
2 – Find two things you can smell. If you can’t smell anything in the air, feel free to walk around and smell specific items like a candle.
1 – Finally, find one thing you can taste – something as simple as toothpaste or as elaborate as a delicious meal. Savor the flavor.

Rest in the awareness of all five of your senses. Use this grounding technique whenever you start to dissociate.

Intense exercise

It may seem counterproductive to do intense exercise when you’re having an acute stress response. After all, exercise isn’t something we think of as inherently relaxing.

However, studies have shown that short bursts of high-intensity exercise can almost immediately lower cortisol levels in your brain. One study found that 30 minutes of vigorous exercise lowered participants’ stress and cortisol 45 minutes later. The participants who engaged in vigorous exercise saw more benefits than those who did mild exercise[6].

So, if you’re experiencing an acute stress response, find a way to move your body and get that energy out. Sprint around the block, run up some stairs as fast as possible, or do some jumping jacks. A short while later, you may notice the acute stress response start to come down.

Treatment for acute stress disorder and PTSD

Acute stress can be managed with relaxation and coping techniques. But if you live with acute stress disorder, then early intervention is vital. When left untreated, acute stress disorder is very likely to cause PTSD, which is a severe mental health condition that can often be debilitating.

Research has shown with the proper treatment, you can overcome both acute stress disorder and PTSD. A terrible thing happened to you, and that is unfair – but it doesn’t have to define you forever. There are effective treatments that can help you heal – and even grow – from the trauma you’ve experienced.

The Center • A Place of HOPE offers a specialized treatment program for trauma and PTSD that can help you overcome acute stress disorder and PTSD. Our founder, Dr. Gregory Jantz, created the proven Whole Person Care method to care for you as a whole person instead of just treating your symptoms. You are more than your mental health diagnosis.

There is HOPE for your recovery. Get in touch with us today by calling +1-888-851-7031 or completing our admissions form.


1 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/
2 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560815/
3 – https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/24755-acute-stress-disorder
4 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004735/
5 – https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/acute_stress.asp
6 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453021002109

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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