What Is the Acute Stress Reaction?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 18 May 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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The acute stress reaction occurs when a patient experiences a serious traumatic event like a death, serious injury, combat, accident, or similar situation. The patient's body floods with hormones and this can trigger an immediate reaction to the stress as well as the development of symptoms that may appear as long as a month later. Failure to treat an acute stress reaction can endanger a patient's mental and physical health; some patients may go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example.

In the case of a serious injury, an acute stress reaction can mask pain and other signs of injury as the patient's body kicks into a flight or fight response. This is one reason why paramedics insist on examining people at the scene of an accident, even if they say they feel fine. The hormones expressed as a result of the trauma could hide the evidence of serious injuries, like severe pain or an irregular heartbeat. Patients who refuse treatment may need to sign a form indicating that they understand they are refusing treatment against medical advice and that the care providers will not be liable.


Within a month of an injury, symptoms of an acute stress reaction can develop. The patient may be irritable, anxious, or tired. She can experience phantom sensations including sounds, pain, and smells. Some patients experience disassociation, where they feel separated from their bodies, and others may develop amnesia. A constellation of psychological symptoms can indicate that the body has not recovered from the incident and is still producing an imbalance of hormones.

Treatment for an acute stress reaction can involve several different care providers. A psychologist may evaluate a patient and provide talk therapy as well as referral for medications to manage stress. A physician may also examine the patient for signs of physical injury that need to be addressed. Patients may need time off from work as well as assistance from friends and family during the recovery period.

Managing acute stress reactions can be challenging, as patients may reject the idea that they have a problem and could push themselves further than they should. Denial can make it difficult for patients to progress in treatment, and some patients may also struggle with emotions like guilt for surviving a trauma or a desire to return to work and normal activity levels. A supportive environment is critical in helping the patient to recover.



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