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What Is the Treatment for Acute Stress Disorder?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated May 17, 2024
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The primary treatment for acute stress disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Sometimes medication may also be given to help manage anxious feelings until therapy begins to take effect. Counseling may also be used so patients can discuss and verbally work out their feelings when they are ready to do so.

Acute stress disorder is a condition which occurs directly after a traumatic experience. This may include natural disasters, physical attacks or abuse, or the threat of violence. Patients often begin to feel extreme anxiety within a month of the event, and they often disassociate themselves from their own bodies. They may begin hallucinating, having recurrent nightmare of images of the trauma, and they often describe life as being dreamlike or unreal. They may also feel as though they are not present in their own bodies.

Treatment for acute stress disorder most commonly includes counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy. This includes putting the patient in an uncomfortable situation in order to force them to face their fears and anxieties head-on. For many, this may mean discussing or “reliving” the traumatic event by visualizing it in their minds. They may also be asked to go back to the location where the event happened.

By progressively working up to more and more painful memories or experiences, thoughts of the event gradually become less anxiety-provoking and stressful. This is perhaps the most effective treatment for acute stress disorder, especially when combined with counseling so that patients can discuss their feelings related to the event as they occur.

Although an effective treatment for acute stress disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy can be very stressful and emotional for patients. Medication may be used in conjunction with this method to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety during treatment. These typically include prescription antidepressants and similar medications. Occasionally, if patients are severely detached from themselves and their feelings, stronger drugs may be needed.

Treatment for acute stress syndrome should be begun as soon as the condition is diagnosed. If left untreated, symptoms may worsen and lead to more severe anxiety and stress disorders. Acute stress disorder occurs within weeks of the event and may last several days or longer. Conditions which occur longer periods after an event are often classified as post traumatic stress disorder.

Patients needn’t be ashamed to seek help in sorting out their feelings following a traumatic event. Although difficult, treatment for acute stress disorder is greatly beneficial for many patients. Contrary to the thinking many people have about stress disorders, they often do not just go away with time. Instead, they must be dealt with directly and deliberately for proper recovery.

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