Understanding Acute Stress Reaction


Recent events in Haiti have been traumatic.  For survivors in Haiti many are going through what is described as Acute Stress Reaction.  Yet, many are who are experiencing the symptoms and difficulties are either to be likely to not be fully aware of the scope of symptoms or also likely to call it post-traumatic stress.  An acute stress reaction eventually could lead to Post-traumatic stress disorder but not necessarily. They share the same symptom set and the main difference is the time element. 

Acute Stress Reaction is symptoms that occur immediately after an acute trauma.  They can last a few days or up to four weeks. There are some basic dynamics involved with producing the symptoms with the label Acute Stress Reaction.  First there is the fact that Acute Stress was experienced. It is beyond what is normal and stretches the limits of how God created us to response emotionally to threats.

Now based on our design, any stressful situation triggers biochemical responses within the body.  According to one article after an acutely stressful experience the brain experiences 37 chemical changes initially and another 256 chemical changes twenty-four hours later. The changes happen due to the assessed threat and are there to help survive.  The changes also produce a heightened emotional state. The trouble is after the initial acutely stressful experience, the body chemicals dissipate, and the chemical levels return to normal, there is in essence a crash that leaves you wiped out and exhausted.  Now, the fact that there would be a crash is intuitive.

Everyone experiences times that after the body has been active everything it slows down and moves to a more relaxed state. It is part of how God created us, with the body reacting to both activity and needing rest to recharge. Well the same is true in acutely stressful situations.

Other symptoms are a little more difficult to understand.  The first of which is the memory related symptoms. After any acute stress situation, replays of the event happen in multiple ways. The memory replay can include images of the event, recalling the specifics of the event, illusions, dreams, or flashbacks.  These memories related issues are moments of re-exposure to the event.  The re-exposure occurs in part because the brain is trying to reduce the distress of the memory but repeated exposure.  The other factor is that in terms of memory, recall is easier for events that have significant emotional connections.   As such, those memories surface more frequently due to the significant emotional marker.

Another symptom area in acute stress is a variety ways that one becomes emotionally numb or disconnected from the world.  This can include a restricting of emotional expression, having things seem dream-like or unreal, feeling detached from self, or even becoming less aware of what is going on around you (in a daze.) These symptoms are trying to reduce the intense emotional content.  In is similar in a sense to physical shock, only in cases of acute stress, the emotion system gets overloaded and the emotional responses are numbed.  This is particularly true when the acute stress situation involves significant threats outside of self.  Everyone seeks for safety and when the world outside of self is unsafe, there can be a retreat internally. 

The other symptoms that occur are our responses to perceived threats and are interrelated.  Those are the symptoms of increased arousal/attention and avoidance responses.  When having faced acute stress it is natural to be more aware of the dangers encountered in the event.  It is far harder to feel safe so paying attention to warning signs increases.  This is even true for less acute stressors that happen unexpectedly like a car accident. People begin to identify certain areas, images, or actions with a trauma, which in turn results in increased emotional response when reminded of the acute trauma.  A person becomes more attentive around the things that bring reminders. The increased emotional arousal and attentiveness can in turn lead to avoiding the things that can trigger that arousal. The arousal/avoidance behaviors are essentially forms of fear and anxiety based responding. Something triggers the perception of a chance of a similar threat and a perceived risk of a chance of having the acute event re-occur.

            Overall, anyone who has been involved in an acute stress situation is apt to develop an acute stress reaction. The symptoms that occur, do so related to how the body works, adapts, and protects self.  The fact is that these situations are those beyond normal experience and end up overwhelming to the point of what are adaptive processes become detrimental to overall functioning.  The symptoms can be scary if you do not understand what is going on, hopefully anyone reading this article will understand a little clearer what is happening. If anything is unclear or have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.

Timothy G. Blake, MA, LP

Resource Bibliography:

1: http://psychcentral.com/disorders/sx44.htm

 2: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acute_stress_reaction

 3: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/156/11/1780

4. http://efap.torontopolice.on.ca/cis_rd.html

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One Response

  1. […] A basic understanding of symptoms related to acute stress reaction if found at this article: https://peacebringer7.wordpress.com/2010/01/30/understanding-acute-stress-reaction/.  The focus of this article is about coping with the experience of acute stress […]

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