Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) are two conditions that can be caused by experiencing or witnessing almost any kind of deep emotional trauma, especially one that is unexpected. For many, PTSD and ASD are the body's natural response to trauma - a normal, instinctive coping mechanism. While healthcare professionals and counselors are becoming better equipped to assist those with ASD or PTSD, many sufferers remain reluctant to seek help because of the stigma of being diagnosed with a "mental health condition" or "mental illness." It is important to understand that PTSD and ASD are potentially serious conditions that afflict a great number of trauma victims, and that experiencing them in no way reflects a "weakness" or "deficiency" on the part of the survivor.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Millions of people suffer from PTSD, a widely recognized condition that can result from virtually any type of trauma - from enduring years of domestic violence to a single violent attack that lasts but a few seconds. It is not known why some develop PTSD following trauma while others do not. An individual's history, life circumstances, personal traits, and genetics likely play some role in determining the risk of PTSD, as does the nature of the trauma itself. Approximately 8 percent of men and 20 percent of women develop PTSD, and around 30 percent of those persons develop chronic, life-long PTSD. 1
Symptoms of PTSD include emotional numbness, restlessness, anxiety, uncharacteristic irritability or even violent behavior, problems focusing or concentrating, flashbacks (which can be triggered by people, places, things, sounds, smells, etc.), and sleep disturbance. People experiencing PTSD often feel isolated, disconnected, and "different" from others, and it can even begin to affect the most routine activities of everyday life. Symptoms typically surface within three months following a traumatic event and may dissipate within a few months. However, for some people the symptoms may not surface for years. Some suffer chronic, unrelenting symptoms, while others notice that symptoms come and go, increasing and decreasing in severity over time. In addition, children with PTSD may develop learning disabilities, or memory or attention problems, and may be at a higher risk for self injury or other unhealthy coping behaviors.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for PTSD, and there is no known cure. However, there is hope, as most sufferers see notable improvement given the right combination of support, medication, therapy or counseling, and time. Typically, PTSD treatment includes antidepressant medication(s) and/or psychotherapy, which may include:
cognitive-behavior therapy, which is intended to help survivors minimize their symptoms by learning to change the way they think about and react to their thoughts surrounding the trauma; group therapy; family therapy; or exposure therapy, which entails working with a licensed counselor to repeatedly relive the trauma in a "safe" environment in order to work through the violent experience.
Some have also found relief through alternative treatment methods such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation, and aromatherapy. It is recommended to consult a licensed doctor or counselor to develop an individual treatment program.
It is almost always better to seek help and support for PTSD sooner rather than later, because left untreated, it can lead to long-term physiological problems that are more difficult to treat. In addition, most experts agree that those with PTSD are at a much higher risk of substance abuse, which not only impedes treatment, but can also present a host of additional problems that may make the healing process more difficult.
Acute Stress Disorder
ASD is a relatively new trauma-related diagnosis, which was officially assigned a diagnostic category in 1994 to differentiate it from the more widely recognized PTSD. ASD shares many of the same characteristics as PTSD, including emotional numbness, restlessness, anxiety, uncharacteristic irritability, problems focusing or concentrating, flashbacks, and sleep disturbance. In fact, some experts consider ASD a variation of PTSD.
However, there are two important distinctions between ASD and PTSD. One is that ASD is considered a more immediate, short-term response to trauma that lasts between two days and four weeks. If ASD symptoms persist for more than a month, then PTSD may be diagnosed.
The other notable difference is that ASD is more associated with dissociative symptoms, which may include:
extreme emotional disconnection; difficulty experiencing pleasure; temporary amnesia, or "dissociative amnesia" if the loss of memory centers more around the traumatic event itself; depersonalization (survivors feel detached from their traumatic experience); and derealization (survivors' worlds seems strange and unfamiliar, and they may feel as though they are not "real").
People suffering from ASD may become extremely withdrawn or unsociable, or exhibit a mental or emotional "distance" between themselves and their violent experience. They may seem "spaced out" and appear to refuse to acknowledge their trauma. If they do speak about their trauma, they may do so in a dispassionate manner, using distant-sounding or overly generic terms. Many experts agree that this is a coping mechanism, representing a quest for immediate emotional "survival" - victims may not be ready to address the trauma they have endured because it is simply too painful.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Because ASD is a relatively new diagnosis, there are fewer well-established methods for testing and identification. In general, a diagnosis of ASD will depend upon:
whether the individual experienced a traumatic event within four weeks prior to the first sign of symptoms; the length of time that the individual has experienced the symptoms (typically, ASD is the diagnosis only if the symptoms last between two days and four weeks); whether the symptoms significantly and adversely affect everyday activities; and the individual's personal and medical history (including a physical examination to exclude other illnesses that may be causing the symptoms).
Typically, treatment for ASD includes antidepressant medication(s) and/or short-term psychotherapy. Some have also found relief through alternative treatment methods such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation, and aromatherapy. It is recommended to consult a licensed doctor or counselor to develop an individual treatment program.
Many experts agree that those with untreated ASD are at a substantially higher risk for developing PTSD and substance abuse problems.
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Helga Luest is co-founder of and the key inspiration behind Witness Justice. She has first-hand knowledge of why Witness Justice is so important in communities around the country. Helga herself fell victim to a brutal, random attempted murder over a decade ago. She has more than 15 years of communications and marketing experience, garnering numerous awards for her work and starting up Mission Works Communications, a public relations firm serving a variety of public interest and nonprofit organizations. Helga holds an M.A. in international business from the University of Maryland and a B.S. in marketing from American University. She is also a certified private investigator and has earned certification in women's self defense.