Definitions

acute situational reaction

Acute stress reaction

Acute stress reaction (also called acute stress disorder, psychological shock, mental shock, or simply, shock) is a psychological condition arising in response to a terrifying event. It should not be confused with the unrelated circulatory condition of shock.

"Acute Stress Response", was first described by Walter Cannon in the 1920s as a theory that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system. The response was later recognized as the first stage of a general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms.

The onset of a stress response is associated with specific physiological actions in the sympathetic nervous system, both directly and indirectly through the release of epinephrine and to a lesser extent norepinephrine from the medulla of the adrenal glands. The release is triggered by acetylcholine released from pre-ganglionic sympathetic nerves. These catecholamine hormones facilitate immediate physical reactions by triggering increases in heart rate and breathing, constricting blood vessels in many parts of the body - but not in muscles (vasodilation), brain, lungs and heart - and tightening muscles. An abundance of catecholamines at neuroreceptor sites facilitates reliance on spontaneous or intuitive behaviors often related to combat or escape.

Normally, when a person is in a serene, unstimulated state, the "firing" of neurons in the locus ceruleus is minimal. A novel stimulus, once perceived, is relayed from the sensory cortex of the brain through the thalamus to the brain stem. That route of signaling increases the rate of noradrenergic activity in the locus ceruleus, and the person becomes alert and attentive to the environment.

If a stimulus is perceived as a threat, a more intense and prolonged discharge of the locus ceruleus activates the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (Thase & Howland, 1995). The activation of the sympathetic nervous system leads to the release of norepinephrine from nerve endings acting on the heart, blood vessels, respiratory centers, and other sites. The ensuing physiological changes constitute a major part of the acute stress response. The other major player in the acute stress response is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

What It Is

A transient disorder of significant severity which develops in an individual without any other apparent mental disorder in response to exceptional physical and/or mental stress and which usually subsides within hours or days.

Causes

By definition, acute stress disorder is the result of a traumatic event in which the person experiences or witnesses an event that causes the victim/witness to experience extreme, disturbing or unexpected fear, stress, (and sometimes pain) and that involves or threatens serious injury, perceived serious injury (usually to someone else), or death. Acute stress reaction is a variation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and is the mind's and body's response to feelings (both perceived and real) of intense helplessness. Symptoms may include anxiety, impaired judgement, confusion, detachment and depression.

Symptoms of Acute Stress Reaction

The symptoms show great variation but typically they include an initial state of "daze", with some constriction of the field of consciousness and narrowing of attention, inability to comprehend stimuli, and disorientation. This state may be followed either by further withdrawal from the surrounding situation (to the extent of a dissociative stupor), or by agitation and overactivity (flight reaction of fugue). Autonomic signs of panic anxiety (tachycardia, sweating, flushing) are commonly present. The symptoms usually appear within minutes of the impact of the stressful stimulus or event, and disappear within 2-3 days (often within hours). Partial or complete amnesia for the episode may be present.

Diagnostic Guidelines

There must be an immediate and clear temporal connection between the impact of an exceptional stressor and the onset of symptoms; onset is usually within a few minutes, if not immediate. In addition, the symptoms:

show a mixed and usually changing picture; in addition to the initial state of "daze", depression, anxiety, anger, despair, overactivity, and withdrawal may all be seen, but no one type of symptom predominates for long; resolve rapidly (within a few hours at the most) in those cases where removal from the stressful environment is possible; in cases where the stress continues or cannot by its nature be reversed, the symptoms usually begin to diminish after 24-48 hours and are usually minimal after about 3 days.

Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

Symptoms of acute stress disorder are: numbing, detachment, derealization, depersonalization or dissociative amnesia. Continued re-experiencing of the event by such ways as thoughts, dreams, and flashbacks, and avoidance of any stimulation that reminds them of the event. During this time, they must have symptoms of anxiety, and significant impairment in at least one essential area of functioning. Symptoms last for a minimum of 2 days, and a maximum of 4 weeks, and occurs within 4 weeks of the event.

Treatment

The disorder may resolve itself with time or may develop into a more severe disorder such as PTSD. Medication can be used for a very short duration (up to four weeks) or psychotherapy can be used to assist the victim in dealing with the fear and sense of helplessness.

Prognosis

Prognosis for this disorder is very good. If it should progress into another disorder (usually PTSD), success rates can vary according to the specific of that disorder.

See also

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