Seven Essential Strategies for Coping with Acute Stress Reactions

People who face acute stress, critical incidents, or disaster have faced something that is life changing.  The greater the acuity is the greater the life impact.   Their lives will never be the same.  More and more as separated from the immediate impact by time and distance there will be a psychological rollercoaster of emotions and symptoms. 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 reaction.

In examining how to cope with acute stress it is important to recognize that there is a difference when you are in the midst of an acutely stressful situation and when that stressor is over and there is no longer immediate risk.  During acute stress, coping is all about meeting needs and staying safe and helping others to do the same. It is all about survival and making it to the next day.  The symptoms of acute stress reaction can start as the ongoing fear of what will happen next is normal.  However, the true work of coping and reducing symptoms comes later, when removed from the acute stress and in a place of safety.  When that safety level is reached the acute stress reactions symptoms intensify and can be debilitating.  However, eventually the symptoms will subside if you are able to effectively cope and heal from what happened.  Now let’s look at some specific things you can do to help facilitate the healing and reduction of symptoms.

  1: Take care of your physical needs. 

            This means attending to basic self-care needs.  Basically it is assuring three essentials: nutrition, exercise, and rest.  Eating well, engaging your body, and assuring rest will help anyone recover. Granted many of us do not eat well or exercise well before any acute stress. This really is about focusing on basic needs and is really a carry over of the survival mode that occurred during the acute stress.  Now rest is an important part of self care but it is also worth addressing in more detail separately.  

2: Set aside specific time to just rest.

            Rest is essential to any recovery from acute stress.  When we rest and even sleep, the body takes time to recover and adapt.  Some of the symptoms that are experienced are essentially our body and brain trying to work through the difficult experience.  It is while we sleep that the brain goes over the communication routes and does any ‘rewiring’ of the communication patterns.  Also if you cannot sleep do not focus your thought on the difficulty sleep, but rather do things that enable you to be in a more relaxed state.

3: Practice Relaxation.

            This goes along with taking time to rest but really needed to comment on this more fully.  Some of the symptoms of acute stress are directly related to anxiety and panic and fears triggered by having experienced acute stress.  Practicing relaxation is the primary means of coping with anxiety and panic symptoms. So do things that you find relaxing or calming.  It also may be beneficial to take time doing exercise, which can also shift your body into a more relaxed state.  It is also helpful if you notice increasing anxiety to practice deep breathing.  Take deep breaths in and breathe out slowly.

4. Talk about experience

            This is an essential step for recovery. Being able to process and sort through and talk about the experience.  It is helpful to talk things out both with others who have been through the same experience and those that have not.  Talking enables thoughts and feelings. It connects you to the shared experience and it reduces the intensity of the symptoms over time.  It is worth noting that talking about the acute stressor is important for a time, but if it pre-dominates your thoughts and conversation then there is a need to disengage from that discussion.  Do make sure and take time about all ways impacted and the results.  It can be easy to get lost in one aspect of the acute stress or another. Take time to discuss it all.  Do not refrain from discussing or engaging others around what happened. The more you hold things back, the more likely symptoms are to increase and remain. 

5. Stay engaged.

            Some of the symptoms of acute stress reaction that results in withdrawal and avoidance.   Engaging in withdrawal or avoidance is tempting and will seem to foster safety.  However, when you disengage through avoidance and withdrawal it can increase the frequency, duration, and intensity of symptoms.  It is better to find ways to keep engaged and not shut down.  There is really a balance here, there are moments of needing rest and relaxation and perhaps time alone.  But if decisions are made to avoid certain places or things that remind you of the acute stressor such behavior directly impacts the recovery. In fact the opposite of the temptation is more beneficial.  For example, let’s say you were in a car accident and initially any time you are at the place where it occurred you will nervous and scared.  The more you go by that place and are safe, the anxiety and nervousness of being at the spot of the accident reduces. 

6. Engage in pleasurable activities.

            This is a general principle in dealing with distressing emotions and situations.  Find time to do things that are soothing and pleasurable. Engage your senses.  Moments of doing things that are pleasurable can serve as a distraction from the distressing emotions and take your mind off of matters. Now, it is not uncommon to have difficulty enjoying things that were usually enjoyable, but it is worth the effort to follow through even if you may not feel like it.  Living every minute of the day focused on recovering from the acute stress will get draining if there is no ability to engage in pleasurable distractions.

7. Attend to your spiritual health.   

            The experience of acute stress can bring all sorts of responses and barriers to your relationship with God.  Doubts can surface, anger at God can surface, you can draw closer to God, even enter into relationship with God.  Engaging spiritually and turning to God can be an essential part of your healing from the experienced trauma.  Now, it takes another article to go into details about spiritual principles that can help with coping with acute stress.  The starting point is really about building your faith and finding hope out of the trauma.  There are always two choices, a path of faith and hope and that of doubt and despair. Choose to walk in faith and hope and draw closer to God, He will see you through.  Seek out spiritual counsel for assistance directly for help and prayer with your personal struggles in this area.      

 Now hopefully these suggestions to help for coping are helpful.  Admittedly on first glance they may seem to be simple common sense, yet they are easily ignored and not attended to as well.  If you have experienced acute stress, your life is forever changed, but healing can and will come.  Ultimately the suffering and pain endured will serve to strength you, make you more aware of weaknesses and enable further fruit and growth.  Peace and joy are available, but it all starts with being intentional with these coping strategies.  It continues with following some basic spiritual principles that will be outlined in another article.  Recognize that recovery takes time, but the only way to recover is to engage and go through the process.  Symptoms will occur, emotions will fluctuate, but healilng can and will come.

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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

New moral trend: heteroflexible

I recently came across this column on what is and it really gives evidence to the slippery slope the morality of our society. The article basically discusses a trend of girls kissing girls to attract men. This practice is being called being hetero-flexible.  It displays the trend toward focus on sexuality and sex as recreation. And yes, men find women kissing women attractive, there is something about it that is alluring.  Perhaps the visual stimulation that triggers arousal.  This trend is a symptom of doing what want and need to do to get what you want, which in this case is sexual interactions and arousal.  There maybe some who engage in practice simply to tease. 

     Regardless, we live in a world that engages in recreational sex. We live in  a world where people exchange physical intimacy for true intimacy.  We live in a world where the lines of what is publically acceptable keep being crossed. It is the world we live in. It is a sad thing.  It is sad to see what  should be the culmination of intimacy between two people and what results in two becoming one, relegated to recreation and a focus on seeking after physical pleasure. 

    The behavior being called hetroflexible simply relegates women to being objectified.  For the women who engage in the practice, they perhaps feel power in being able to trigger arousal and attention, but it is fleeting. 

    So the final question is how does a Christian respond? While the behavior is a sign of moral decay, it is a sign of people really longing to be loved. It is a sign of someone chasing after temporary pleasures and power.  It is a sign of someone deep down needs to be shown the true love of Jesus that is unconditional and gets beyond the woundedness that stems from the sexual pursuits. A Christian, if aware of someone engaging in such practice can point out the negatives of the behavior but should never do so in a condeming way. It is simply unhealthy behavior that will it may bring a temporary pleasure, in the end just leads to emptiness.