Stress is normal. It’s a physical reaction when the body kicks into gear to meet challenges or face whatever has caused the stress response, and then the body usually returns to a normal balance. But there’s a large distinction between common stress and stress-related disorders. Stress-related disorders are usually caused by extreme, traumatic and overwhelming experiences that affect the body more long term.
Acute stress disorder
Acute stress disorder characteristics include anxiety, dissociation, and other symptoms that occur within minutes or up to one month since exposure to a trauma. A traumatic event includes situations where a person witnesses, experiences or confronts an event with the threat of death or serious injury to self and others, and when an individual responds with intense feelings of fear or helplessness. During or after the experience a person may show symptoms of disassociation, which include detachment, lack of emotion, a dazed awareness, amnesia regarding parts of the traumatic experience, derealization, or depersonalization.
The disorder may prevent a person from being able to function normally at work and with friends and family, and the event may be re-experienced through dreams, flashbacks, illusions, thoughts or exposure to reminders of the trauma. A person may also show avoidance of anything that reminds them of the trauma, and may be easily startled, or experience difficulty sleeping, irritability, inability to concentrate, or hypervigilence.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Not unlike acute stress disorder, a person with post-traumatic stress disorder has experienced trauma that has directly affected them psychologically. Some causes include war, natural disasters, serious accidents, witnessing violent death, sexual abuse, rape, torture, and terrorism. PTSD is less common than acute stress as a response to trauma. A marked difference distinguishing post-traumatic stress disorder is that the symptoms last more than a month and more dramatically impair a person’s ability to function socially, occupationally, or in other areas.
Symptoms are similar to other stress disorders in that individuals re-experience the trauma through flashbacks, or nightmares, will avoid stimuli reminding them of the event, and have difficulty sleeping, concentrating etc. They may also show anger and hypervigilence.
Getting professional help for stress disorder
The formal diagnosis of any stress-related disorder depends on many of the above symptoms, which should be evaluated by mental health professionals. Without treatment, people with stress-related disorders may have a difficult time adjusting and living life normally, which can take a toll on the ability to hold a job and maintain healthy relationships, and it may even lead to suicide. With treatment a person can be supported on a path toward recovery. After discovering what has caused the disorder, a mental health professional will be able to provide that support, therapy and steps for treatment. They can help individuals learn techniques to change patterns of thinking and behavior in order to handle the stress and cope.
To learn more or get help from the Atlanta Behavioral Consultants, please call Marsha Schechtman, LCSW at 770.753.4911 or Howard Drutman, Ph.D. at 678.867.7020.