Are you looking to prove a point in a debate about acute stress disorder vs PTSD? Are you aware of the similarities and differences? If not, read here!

Since the creation of the universe, humans have found a way to unleash the secrets the world has hidden. By studying complex minds and their intricacies, humans introduced a new branch that dealt with the human mind, they named it psychology! It came into existence in 1854, and since then, it has continued to extend its roots deeper and deeper. Today it has become the pillar for the study of the human mind.

Over time scientists discovered the reactions in our brains and the effects they inflict. One of the earliest psychological illnesses is depression and PTSD, a significant consequence of war. Modern psychology has become so advanced that it has given way to discovering numerous new disorders and the science behind them. Their symptoms categorized them. However, sometimes the symptoms overlap, resulting in a mix-up of the diagnosis.

Two disorders with similar symptoms are PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and acute stress disorder (Acute Stress Disorder). Both disorders usually have the exact origin but are distinct disorders with distinctive symptoms and treatments. In this article, we will have an in-depth analysis of acute stress disorder vs PTSD. So buckle up and keep yourself posted on the intricate world of psychology!

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD, as the name suggests, develops after a rough traumatic phase in life. It has been categorized as a mental and behavioral disorder since the war era or maybe before that. In world war I, PTSD was named “shell shock syndrome,” which was later changed to “combat fatigue” after world war II.

Later discoveries concluded that PTSD is not limited to military veterans; common people may also face similar conditions due to traumatic life events. Therefore, it was later named Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, PTSD is

“A psychological reaction occurring after experiencing a highly stressing event (such as wartime combat, physical violence, or a natural disaster) that is usually characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, and avoidance of reminders of the event”

Symptoms of PTSD

This article aims to debate acute stress disorder vs. PTSD. Before that, it is mandatory to have a unique view of each type of disorder and its symptoms which brings us to the symptoms of PTSD. Let’s see what they are:

Avoidance symptoms

  • Avoiding places, people, or activities that may trigger memories of the traumatic event.
  • Experiencing emotional numbness
  • Difficult to maintain a relationship
  • Memory loss/ difficulty remembering details of the event
  • Sense of hopelessness
  • Tension in muscles
  • Excessive anxiety and stress
  • Racing heartbeat resulting in chest pain
  • Stomach pain
  • Lack of interest in planning the future or looking forwards to things

Intrusion symptoms

  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Physical, visual, or auditory sensations
  • Nightmares leading to stress and insomnia
  • Intrusive memories or thoughts of the events
  • Triggered by specific stimuli related to the event

Alterations in arousal and reactivity

  • Easily startled
  • Hypervigilance
  • Difficult to relax in other’s surroundings
  • Feeling aggressive without cause
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and decreased productivity
  • Self-hatred and potential for self-harm
  • Numb emotions
  • Drug/alcohol abuse

Negative alterations in mood and cognition

  • Feeling guilt and anger
  • Chronic pains
  • A weakened immune system causes increased risks of infections
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Self-blaming
  • Negative beliefs about the world
  • Heightened negativity and loss of positive attitude
  • Feeling unworthy
  • Losing interest in favorite activities
  • Sense of emptiness

Causes of PTSD

After studying the common symptoms involved in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, now is time to know the root cause of the disorder.

  • Experiencing violence during war
  • Loss of a child during childbirth or in an unfortunate event
  • Seeing someone being tortured or the person itself is being tortured
  • Assault (sexual/physical)
  • Domestic or childhood abuse
  • Death of someone you love
  • Serious accidents (car crashes/airplane crashes/shipwrecks)
  • Bullied (sexism/racism)
  • Kidnapping
  • Seeing other people being abused or killed
  • Hearing or encountering repeated distressing events at work, like working as a police officer or emergency service
  • Natural disaster
  • Robbed
  • Someone close to you or you being diagnosed with a terminal disease

Who is at risk?

The risk of PTSD is not limited to those who have experienced traumatic events in life. It might develop as a response to an already existing mental condition. Below is a list of people who are at risk of developing PTSD.

  • Having a family history of mental disorders
  • Women are most likely to develop PTSD due to domestic or sexual abuse
  • People with poor coping skills or mechanisms.
  • Introverted people
  • People who have experienced prior trauma
  • Women of age 51 to 55 are more vulnerable to trauma and thus may experience PTSD
  • People who lack social support are also vulnerable and develop PTSD

Limbic System and PTSD

The hypothalamus, hippocampus, thalamus, and amygdala collectively comprise our brain’s limbic system. Some imaging and research have shown that it is responsible for developing PTSD. When the brain is overstressed, it may result in cross-wiring, leading to PTSD. Although it is not proven, it is considered valid to some extent.

What does a PTSD attack feel like?

Have you ever wondered what does a PTSD attack feel like? Or what a person might feel when they are triggered? Let’s understand it with the help of an example.

PTSD is a rare mental disorder and only develops due to trauma. If you have never encountered a person with PTSD before, it might be difficult for you to understand. However, if you notice the symptoms mentioned above in you or someone close to you, it is recommended to go for immediate diagnosis by a professional. The more you delay, the more severe the consequences will be.

Imagine a girl who has been a victim of sexual assault called at a family dinner to get her out of the trauma and enable her to return to her everyday life. During the gathering, she sees her brother wearing a t-shirt with a similar pattern to that of the assaulter. She will be triggered and start to have flashbacks of the event leading to the worst scenario.

Starting from flashbacks, the girl will not be able to function normally anymore, causing her trouble breathing, sweating, rapid heartbeat, or intrusive thoughts leading her to act strange or aggressive or maybe emotionally numb. This will create a tense situation lasting for more than an hour. Thus, to avoid such situations, it is necessary to avoid things that may trigger the victim’s emotions.

Understanding what does a PTSD attack feel like may be an easy question, but the real pain can only be felt by those who suffer from such a condition.

How does a person with PTSD behave?

Although we have mentioned some of the symptoms of PTSD, the behavior might be difficult to understand. It is more likely that you will not notice any symptoms of PTSD, but you must keep an open eye if you notice a change in behavior after a traumatic event.

A person with PTSD has disturbing thoughts, and they may say disturbing things to you as well. In addition, you will notice a sense of fear, aggression, zoning out, and an easily startling attitude. These signs are sometimes confused with those of depression; therefore, an accurate and professional diagnosis is required.

Treatments for PTSD


  • Prolonged Exposure
  • Stress Inoculation Training.
  • Talking therapies are one of the first treatments for people with less severe symptoms
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)


  • Paroxetine and sertraline are both antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
  • Venlafaxine may also be prescribed.

PTSD statistics

  • According to the National Center for PTSD, about 7-8% population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives
  • Women are more likely than men to develop PTSD
  • 10% of women will experience PTSD in their lifetime, compared to 4% of men
  • Individuals with a history of trauma are up to 20 times more vulnerable to developing a mental disorder
  • The prevalence of PTSD among combat veterans is estimated between 10-30%

What is acute stress disorder?

Let’s have an overview of acute stress disorder so we can have a detailed comparison of acute stress disorder vs PTSD.

Acute stress disorder is one of the many disorders similar to PTSD. Let’s say your loved one has recently been in a car crash and lost his parents. You will notice changes in his behavior other than grief and mourning, like aggression, fear, and stress. The symptoms may seem similar to PTSD; however, if the acute stress disorder persists, it will cause PTSD.

It was first added to the manual on mental disorders in 1994. Acute stress disorder is said to last almost a month. Acute stress disorder is categorized as an anxiety disorder.

Wikipedia defines acute stress disorder as:

“Acute stress disorder (ASD, also known as an acute stress reaction, psychological shock, mental shock, or simply shock) is a psychological response to a terrifying, traumatic, or theatrical experience. It may bring about delayed stress reactions (better known as a post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD) if not correctly addressed.”

Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

Here are some of the symptoms of acute stress disorder:

Intrusive thoughts

  • Recurrent and distressing thoughts
  • Nightmares of the event
  • Images related to the event

Anxiety and emotional arousal

  • Difficulty concentrating or sleeping
  • Physical symptoms may involve sweating, rapid heartbeat, trembling, or shivering.
  • Feeling anxious and on the edge


  • Avoiding people, places, or situations resembling trauma.

Negative mood

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, or emotionally numb
  • Losing interest
  • Disconnecting from everyone

Re-experiencing the trauma

  • Nightmares or recurrent thoughts
  • Pain sensation


  • Detached from reality
  • Living in a dream-like state

However, it is critical to note that these symptoms must occur within one month of the traumatic event and last for at least three days to be diagnosed. If these symptoms persist for longer than one month, a diagnosis of PTSD may be considered.

Causes of acute stress disorder

Following are some of the major causes of acute stress disorder that will lead to the development of PTSD in the future if not treated early

  • Death of a loved one
  • Natural disasters
  • Self-injury or terminal illness
  • Sexual assault
  • Domestic or sexual violence
  • Accidents

Who is at risk?

Here is a list of individuals who are at a greater risk of acute stress disorder:

  • Individuals with a previous traumatic history
  • People with previous mental disorders
  • People with no social support
  • Females
  • People with a high level of negativity

How does a person with acute stress disorder behave?

Like PTSD, a person with acute stress disorder will encounter recurring nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts about the incident. The individual will be socially distant, unattached to everyone, and emotionally numb.

If you see any person around you with similar symptoms, get help for them before it gets too late!

Acute stress disorder treatment

There are two ways to treat acute stress disorder:


Trauma-focused Cognitive behavioral therapy, includes patient education about the disorder and his response to stressful situations and the cognitive processing about the trauma and things that trigger the event.


includes medicine like antidepressants, anticonvulsants, morphine to manage pain, benzodiazepines, and stress-dose corticosteroids

ASD statistics

  • Acute stress disorder is estimated to affect 5-20% of individuals exposed to traumatic events.
  • Similar to PTSD, women are more likely to develop acute stress disorder, with some studies reporting up to a 2:1 ratio.
  • According to some studies, individuals with a prior history of psychiatric disorders may be more vulnerable to developing acute stress disorder, with a rate as high as 39%

Can acute stress disorder turn into PTSD?

The short answer is YES!

The reason to discuss acute stress disorder vs PTSD leads us to the abovementioned question. When an acute stress disorder lasts for a long term and starts becoming severe, it will be turned into PTSD.

It is important to note that experiencing ASD does increase the person’s risk of developing PTSD later on. Research has found that up to 80% of individuals with ASD go on to develop PTSD.

Note that acute stress disorder is not a necessary precursor to PTSD. Many people who develop PTSD do not experience acute stress disorder, and some individuals with acute stress disorder do not develop PTSD. It is necessary to have a clear distinction between acute stress disorder vs PTSD in mind to manage an individual with the disorder according to its treatments.

Acute Stress Disorder vs. PTSD

Let’s jump to the debate of acute stress disorder vs PTSD. PTSD and acute stress disorder are mental health conditions that can occur in response to a traumatic event. However, there are significant differences between these two.

Acute stress disorder is a short-term condition that can develop in the first month after a traumatic event. Its symptoms are similar to those of PTSD, including intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and hypervigilance. On the other hand, PTSD is a long-lasting and severe condition, and its symptoms may last more than a year. It can significantly impact an individual’s ability to function.

The critical difference is the severity and frequency of symptoms. The symptoms of PTSD are typically more severe and frequent than those of acute stress disorder. Additionally, the diagnostic criteria for PTSD require the presence of a criterion called “Negative Alterations in Cognition and Mood,” which refers to persistent negative changes in mood, beliefs, and thoughts related to the traumatic event. This criterion is not present in the diagnostic criteria for acute stress disorder.

Let’s understand with an example of acute stress disorder vs PTSD from real-life scenarios.

  1. A person witnesses a bank robbery in which the robber fires shots and injures several people. In the days following the event, the person experiences flashbacks and intrusive thoughts of the event; they avoid going to the bank or places that remind them of the event. They may also feel irritable and on edge. If these symptoms last for about a month, the diagnosis will be Acute Stress Disorder.
  2. On the other hand, take an example of a soldier who has returned from combat and shows signs of PTSD like nightmares, delusions, and zoning out from reality. Furthermore, they even avoid discussing combat, and when triggered, they become aggressive, startled, and have angry outbursts. If these are the symptoms, the condition is PTSD.

One of the most popular Netflix shows, “Riverdale,” depicts PTSD through one of its characters, “Archie Andrews,” who returns from a war with the guilt of being unable to help his fellow soldiers. The guilt consumes him, and he gets recurrent flashbacks and nightmares of the event, like seeing his fellow soldier killing him and being stuck under rubble after the explosion.

Similarities between acute stress disorder and PTSD

One of the significant similarities that both disorders share is the symptoms, which are often grouped as trauma and stressor-related disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Acute Stress Disorder vs. PTSD

To make things easier to discuss acute stress disorder vs PTSD, let’s have a look at the tabular division of each of the disorders.

Criteria PTSD Acute Stress Disorder
Definition A psychiatric disorder that can occur after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. A mental health condition that can develop after a person goes through a traumatic phase
Onset Delayed onset- symptoms may develop weeks, months or even years after the event Symptoms develop within a month
Duration Lasts for more than a month Last for a period of 3 days to a month
Symptoms severity Symptoms can be severe and can significantly affect daily life and relationships Symptoms are generally less severe than PTSD
Comorbidity Often co-occurs with other mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse Can co-occur with other mental health disorders
Treatment Psychotherapy, medication or combination of both Psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or a combination of both.

Acute stress disorder vs PTSD timeline

To make the concept easier, let’s look at the acute stress disorder vs PTSD timeline.

Day 1: A person experiences a traumatic event, such as a car accident or a natural disaster. They may feel disoriented, numb, or in shock immediately after the event.

Day 2-3: The person begins to experience symptoms of acute stress disorder, such as intrusive thoughts or memories, avoidance of the reminders of the event, adverse changes in mood or cognition, and increased arousal or reactivity. These symptoms may interfere with their ability to function generally in daily life.

Day 4-30: the person’s symptoms persist but do not worsen or improve significantly. They are diagnosed with acute stress disorder if they meet the criteria.

Day 31-60: The person’s symptoms worsen, indicating a transition from acute stress disorder to PTSD. They may experience more severe symptoms, including recurrent flashbacks, nightmares, and visions.

Day 61-90: the symptoms persist but may become less intense . they may start to engage in treatment, such as therapy or medication, to manage their symptoms and improve normal functionality.

Day 91+: The person’s symptoms either persist or improve depending on the severity of their condition and the effectiveness of their treatment. They’ll receive the clinical diagnosis of PTSD if the symptoms last over a month.


A mental disorder develops as a consequence of numerous events. It is not a choice that can be altered or treated like physical injuries. If someone around you has a mental disorder, it is recommended to seek help for him.

PTSD and acute stress disorder are both familiar to each other, but the significant difference that lies between both conditions is their time.

Many mental disorders have similar symptoms therefore, it is necessary to seek professional help instead of self-diagnosing. If you are looking for symptoms of acute stress disorder vs PTSD, read the article carefully, and get help as soon as possible!


Nabeel Ahmad is the founder and editor-in-chief of Lone Mind. Apart from Lone Mind, he is a serial entrepreneur, and has founded multiple successful companies in different industries.

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