Acute Stress Disorder vs PTSD: What’s the Difference?

FEATURED
May 4, 2022

Nue Life

Nue Life
11 MIN READ

Top points

  • Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are both linked to how we respond to trauma.
  • The timeframe of the trauma in relation to the symptomatic responses to it is what distinguishes ASD from PTSD.
  • Ketamine treatment has shown positive results in addressing both conditions by increasing the production of the neurotransmitter glutamate.

For many people out there, stress is a part of life. Major stress-inducing events can change the way we think, behave, and perceive life.

But sometimes, the negative events in life go beyond stress and into the realm of trauma. And sometimes these events have lasting effects on mental health.

Everybody deserves to heal from their trauma, and healing is possible. To find that healing, it can be helpful to know how that trauma has affected you. Two possible mental ramifications of trauma are acute stress disorder, or ASD, and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

By learning the differences between the two, you can better understand how your trauma has influenced you and take the first step toward finding the treatment that works for you.

The Stress Response

First, let’s walk through what the stress response does to your brain and body. That will help us better grasp these stress disorders, so we can understand them fully and recognize how they might be impacting our lives.

The Amygdala

It all starts with your senses. When your body picks up danger through your eyes, ears, and other sensory organs, these signals get sent to the amygdala, the part of your brain that processes emotions.

Because it can process your emotions, the amygdala is the part of your brain that contributes to fear. And if the amygdala determines that the incoming sensory information is dangerous or fearful, it will trigger the stress reaction by sending a distress signal to the hypothalamus.

The Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is like the command center of your brain. It is the part of your brain that sends signals to the rest of your body to prepare it for the stressful event so that you can act. This is called the fight or flight response. Your hypothalamus gives your body the energy to fight or flee by activating certain mechanisms in the body.

Primarily, in the case of stress, your hypothalamus will trigger signals with your sympathetic nervous system. This acts as the gas pedal to your body in the fight or flight response. The sympathetic nervous system triggers many bodily reactions.

Epinephrine

The hypothalamus accomplishes all of this with a key hormone: epinephrine. It’s also known as adrenaline.

Your breathing elevates, your heartbeat rises, certain important blood vessels constrict or dilate, your airways open wide to get your body oxygen. Extra oxygen gets sent to your brain to increase alertness and make your senses sharper. It also triggers the release of stored glucose to your body, so you have enough energy to act.

All of this happens almost instantaneously in your body. All of these signals and hormones are sent so fast that sometimes your body acts before you even realize what you saw or heard.

HPA Axis

Once the initial surge of epinephrine dies down, the hypothalamus activates the HPA axis to maintain the stress response for as long as you need it. The HPA axis is made up of your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands.

The HPA axis releases more hormones to keep your body on high alert. In particular, your adrenal glands will release cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone.

Cortisone levels drop once the stressful event is over, and your body slows down and exits fight or flight mode, returning to normal.

Acute Stress Disorder

Acute stress disorder, or ASD, occurs when your body responds poorly to the stress response. This is called an acute stress reaction. Part of the stress response is maintained, and when hormone levels are high for too long after the traumatic event, it can cause some negative symptoms to the body.

Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

The maintained stress in the body can lead to depression, anxiety, fatigue, difficulties concentrating and remembering, hyperarousal, and social withdrawal in the month following the traumatic event.

Patients often reexperience their trauma in the form of nightmares. They also may develop dissociative symptoms or zone out. And they commonly avoid stimuli that arouse recollections of the event.

One Month

It’s key to know that, in ASD, these symptoms are only present within the first month of the traumatic event. The symptoms tend to peak within the first days or weeks following the event and then slowly dwindle.

Also, symptoms don’t usually occur for a few days following the event.

Treatment for ASD

Like anything, acute stress disorder is best treated early, so it is best to identify it as soon as possible. The important thing is to manage symptoms initially until they subside.

Psychological Help

The first thing to do is help the person realize that their symptoms are not permanent and that they are not a sign of mental illness. They are just acute responses to a stressful event.

After that, it is good to receive psychological help. Immediately following the traumatic event, it’s important to ensure the person’s safety and comfort and get them psychologically stabilized while also getting information about their needs and concerns.

It is important to provide practical help and then connect them with their support systems and provide them with information about coping with their stress.

Cognitive-behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT has proven to be very effective in treating ASD. This type of therapy consists of educating the person about post-traumatic reactions and helping them learn how to relax their muscles.

But most importantly, CBT gradually exposes the patient to their trauma and helps them alter any unhelpful beliefs about their trauma. CBT can reduce symptoms and help prevent flare-ups in the future.

PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a very common stress disorder in the United States, affecting 3.5 percent of American adults every year. Like acute stress disorder, PTSD is the result of exposure to a very traumatic event. That exposure does not have to be direct. It could even come from hearing about the details of a particular event.

PTSD Symptoms

PTSD shares a lot of the symptoms of acute stress disorder. People with PTSD experience intense and disturbing intrusive thoughts related to their trauma experience long after it is over. Many people relive their experiences in the form of dreams and flashbacks.

Oftentimes, it causes intense emotions of fear or anger. And many people who have PTSD feel estranged from other people. They may regularly try to avoid anything that reminds them of their trauma, even refusing to think or speak about it.

Many people with PTSD also wrestle with cognitive symptoms. They may struggle even to remember the details of their traumatic event, or they might have distorted beliefs stemming from their negative emotions. They may not trust anyone, they may improperly blame themselves or others for the traumatic event, and they may even avoid happiness or satisfaction.

The Difference

The main difference between acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder is the time frame. The symptoms of acute stress disorder appear within a short time following the trauma. Typically these symptoms do not last longer than a month.

PTSD does not develop until long after the trauma is over. It may take months or even years for symptoms to show. Also, to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must be present for a month or more and must alter an individual’s lifestyle.

Acute stress disorder symptoms only last for a few days or weeks.

The Link Between The Two

The symptoms and sources of these two stress disorders are remarkably similar. But that’s not all they have in common. They are actually linked in more ways than one.

One to the Other

The main connection between the two is that people who develop acute stress disorder are very likely to develop PTSD. In fact, about 50 percent of the people who get ASD later develop PTSD.

But this connection does not go the other way. Acute stress disorder is not a prerequisite for developing PTSD later. Many people who wrestle with PTSD never had acute stress disorder at all.

PTSD is the real challenge because of how long-term it is. Many people struggle with PTSD symptoms for years. For many, it becomes a reality that they simply deal with.

Common Treatments

Struggling should not be anyone’s reality. There is treatment available to help find healing and wholeness. Let’s look at the common methods of treatment and their success rates.

Antidepressants

Antidepressants are a common treatment for PTSD. The main type of antidepressants used for PTSD are SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

SSRIs increase the availability of serotonin in your brain by preventing your body from disposing of it. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain commonly associated with feelings of happiness.

Common SSRIs used to treat PTSD are sertraline and paroxetine. But SSRIs are not as effective for treatment as you may expect. One study found that SSRIs only alleviated symptoms in 20 percent of the patients tested. However, they are widely available and do work for some.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is an important part of any comprehensive treatment plan for PTSD and there are different commonly used therapies.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT, discussed above, is a type of talk therapy that focuses on helping you recognize the thought patterns you have latched onto that keep your mind focused on your trauma.

Exposure therapy is a fairly intense form of therapy. It is a behavioral therapy that helps you safely face the memories of your trauma to learn how to cope with them properly. Exposure therapy also seeks to gradually reintroduce you to triggers you may have been avoiding.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, mixes exposure therapy with guided eye movements. These movements help train your brain to react differently to your traumatic memories and process them.

But for many people, therapy is only part of the solution. Sometimes, PTSD can be so severe that it requires medical treatment.

Prazosin

Prazosin is a drug that may help to reduce nightmares in people with PTSD. However, prazosin is a controversial treatment for PTSD, and many studies have come up with conflicting results.

In addition, prazosin only really helps with nightmares. It doesn’t address the root of the problem, so additional treatment is needed to fully confront your PTSD.

New Alternatives for Healing

For many, these treatments may not be enough to address the root cause of their suffering. Ketamine has shown positive results in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Ketamine Treatment

Ketamine is a psychedelic treatment that could help you find relief from your symptoms of PTSD. This treatment is effective for many people.

Ketamine works as an NMDA antagonist in the brain. This means that ketamine binds to the NMDA receptors in your brain, causing a surge in glutamate, a very prominent excitatory neurotransmitter.

This surge of glutamate leads to the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF). These two things together, among other mechanisms, work to increase your brain’s neuroplasticity, making it easier for your brain to form new synaptic connections.

This weakens the hold of the negative thought pathways in your brain and allows you to create positive and healthy neural patterns.

This treatment is effective, and works incredibly quickly. One study at Yale University found that fifty percent of patients given ketamine saw improvements in their depression symptoms within 24 hours of their first treatment.

Nue Life works to provide our patients with oral ketamine treatment that can be taken at home. We also provide virtual health coaching and integration groups to complement your ketamine treatment. We want to ensure you have meaningful takeaways from your experiences, and we want to help you in the establishment of positive new neural pathways.

Conclusion

Acute stress disorder and PTSD are difficult battles to face. PTSD especially can be a long-term difficulty that can change your life and bring stress to areas of your life that compromise your daily well-being.

But healing is possible.  Ketamine treatment could be an effective treatment method if you struggle with ASD or PTSD. With the right treatment, healing is possible for even the most challenging mental health struggles.

Treatment at Nue Life

Nue Life believes in holistic treatment, which means that what happens before and after your ketamine experience is equally as important as the experience itself. We want to ensure you have meaningful takeaways from your experiences and help you establish positive new neural pathways.

That’s why we provide one-on-one health coaching and integration group sessions with each of our programs. We’re here to help map out the mind and body connections in your brain and help you discover the insights that lead to true healing.

Sources

Acute Stress Disorder | PTSD | National Center for PTSD

Depression: How effective are antidepressants? | Informed Health

How New Ketamine Drug Helps with Depression | Yale Medicine  

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) | Diagnosis and treatment | Mayo Clinic

The Physician’s Role in Managing Acute Stress Disorder | American Family Physician

Understanding the stress response | Harvard Health Publishing

What Is PTSD? | American Psychiatric Association

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