Two years ago, my car hydroplaned during a heavy snowstorm and crashed into another car. While my car was totaled, everyone walked away from the accident with only a few small cuts and bruises. However, for about a month afterwards, all I could think about was this event. I was constantly on edge, from the moment I woke up agitated in the morning, until I was trying to calm down at night and sleep. Driving — something I used to enjoy — became a deep fear. After that month, my constant feelings and thoughts circling around the event eventually dissipated, and I was able to carry on with my daily life. What gives?

It was something more than simply “getting over” this car accident. After researching the topic and speaking to a licensed therapist, I realized that I had experienced symptoms of a condition called Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). This anxiety condition is relatively new in the psychological field, and it shares many of the same symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Common Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

Acute stress disorder (ASD) lasts between 3 days and one month. Because it is so short-term, many do not even realize they have it. Acute stress disorder is in fact very common. If you have been feeling stressed, or feel that your personality has suddenly changed after a major event, you could be experiencing acute stress disorder. If you’re not sure whether what you’re feeling is a symptom of a larger disorder, below are some of the characteristic symptoms of ASD.

1. You Suffered a Traumatic Event

Traumatic events are characterized by the International Society for Trauma Stress Studies as “shocking and emotionally overwhelming situations that may involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or threat to physical integrity.” If you experienced or witnessed a car accident, injury, death, or other traumatic events, you are likely to feel some kind of traumatic stress afterwards. It is estimated that between 5 to 20 percent of people develop acute stress disorder after being exposed to trauma such as a car accident, assault, or a mass shooting.

2. Feeling On Edge or Experiencing Anxiety Attacks

Is your anxiety over the top lately, to the point where it’s interrupting your life? Traumatic stress can cause extended periods of intensive anxiety where you are unable to calm down, leading to difficulty concentrating, nausea, trouble sleeping, and verbal or physical aggression. Of course you feel distress after experiencing a rough event in your life, but it becomes an issue when you begin to feel anxious for seemingly no reason. Your traumatic stress often expresses itself through physical symptoms.

3.Disassociating to Escape the Stress

You may have noticed that you don’t always feel present, especially after your anxious thoughts or when you remember the traumatic event. Carefully monitor yourself and note how often you have to “snap back” to reality. Daydreaming is one thing — disassociating is another thing entirely. Dissociation is characterized by a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory, and sense of identity. People dissociate in different ways, but the common factor is that they feel “lost” and experience gaps in their thoughts or memories. Acute and posttraumatic stress disorder also have some symptoms in common with dissociative disorders.

4. Avoiding Certain Stimuli

People normally tend to avoid situations that bring them stress or anxiety. No one likes feeling uncomfortable, but if you find yourself avoiding people, or normal everyday routines like driving or eating, or find yourself disassociating — you could be developing an unhealthy avoidance to stimuli. Life is made up of both pain and pleasure, and acute stress disorder can cause you to try and cut out normal parts of living.

5. Suffering from Intrusive Thoughts and Memories

After I experienced my car accident, for a while I could not stop the influx of thoughts and memories of the event. I found it hard to drive to work and school because every time I saw cars pass by mine, or saw certain turns in the road, I would jump and experience sudden flashbacks to my car accident. If you’re experiencing such flashbacks and thoughts of the traumatic event to the point where you can no longer carry on your daily life as normal, then you could be suffering from acute stress disorder.

How Do You Treat Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder shares many of the same symptoms as PTSD, and should be treated similarly. However, what separates acute stress disorder from regular stress, are symptoms taking over your life. If you can no longer perform everyday functions without feeling anxiety, stress, or physical symptoms — or if you’re resorting to unhealthy methods in order to numb your negative feelings — you should seek medical or psychological help. If you consult with a physician, they may be able to prescribe medication that can help control your symptoms. Consider so seeing a licensed therapist to explore the best therapy option for you.

Medically reviewed by: Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S

Reviewed On: October 3, 2019