Stress - Acute Stress Disorder

Anxiety symptoms sometimes develop quickly as a reaction to stress. Symptoms often go quickly, and you may not need any treatment. Sometimes a betablocker medicine, diazepam, or other treatments are helpful.

This leaflet is part of our series on anxiety and phobias

  • Acute Stress Disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder

What is an acute stress disorder?

Acute stress disorder is when anxiety and other symptoms develop due to a stressful event. The word acute means the symptoms develop quickly, but do not usually last long. Acute stress disorder typically occurs after an unexpected life crisis such as an accident, bereavement, family problem, bad news, etc.

Sometimes symptoms occur before a known, but difficult, situation. For example, an examination, air travel, concert performance, etc. This is called situational anxiety.

What are the symptoms of an acute stress disorder?

Symptoms usually develop quickly over minutes or hours - reacting to the stressful event. Symptoms usually settle fairly quickly, but can sometimes last for several days or weeks. Symptoms typically include some of the following:

  • Psychological symptoms such as anxiety, low mood, irritability, emotional ups and downs, poor sleep, poor concentration, wanting to be alone.
  • Physical symptoms such as palpitations, feeling sick, chest pain, headaches, abdominal pains, and breathing difficulties.

The physical symptoms are caused by stress hormones (such as adrenaline) which are released into the bloodstream, and by overactivity of nervous impulses to various parts of the body.

What are the treatments for acute stress disorder?

No treatment may be needed as symptoms usually go once a stressful event is over or come to terms with. Understanding the cause of symptoms, and talking things over with a friend or family member, may help. However, some people have more severe or prolonged symptoms. One or more of the following may then help.

  • Learning to relax. Leaflets, books, tapes, videos, etc, on relaxation and combating stress are commonly available. They teach simple deep breathing techniques and other stress-relieving measures which may help you to relax and ease symptoms.
  • Counselling (if available) may be an option if symptoms are persistent or severe. Counselling helps you to explore ways of dealing with stress and stress symptoms.
  • Anxiety management courses may be available locally. Some people prefer to be in a group course rather than have individual counselling. These may be particularly useful if you regularly get situational stress symptoms. For example, if you are a musician or lecturer and develop symptoms prior to each performance or lecture.
  • A betablocker medicine is an option. These ease anxiety and some physical symptoms such as trembling which are caused by a stress reaction. They are particularly useful for situational anxiety. For example, some musicians who become stressed take a betablocker to ease shakiness before a concert. Betablockers are not addictive, are not tranquillisers, and do not cause drowsiness or affect performance. You can take them as required.
  • Diazepam is an option if symptoms are severe. Diazepam is a benzodiazepine tranquilliser. It works well to ease anxiety. The problem is, it is addictive and can lose it's effect if you take it for more than a few weeks.This is why diazepam or other benzodiazepines are not advised for long-term anxiety problems. However, a short course (2-4 weeks) may be useful if you have an acute and severe episode of stress-related anxiety symptoms. In particular, it may be useful where the cause of the stress is likely to go, or ease quickly.
  • Advice from agencies such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, housing office, Relate (for relationship problems), patient support groups (for advice on specific medical illnesses), welfare agencies, etc, may help, depending on the cause of the stress.

Decision Aids

Doctors and patients can use Decision Aids together to help choose the best course of action to take.

Compare the options for Acute Stress Disorder.

Alcohol and stress

Although alcohol may give short-term relief of symptoms, don't be fooled that drinking helps with stress. In the long run, it does not. Drinking alcohol to 'calm nerves' is often a slippery slope to heavier and problem drinking. Be aware of this.

Further help and advice

Anxiety UK

Zion Community Resource Centre, 339 Stretford Road, Hulme, Manchester, M15 4ZY
Tel: 08444 775 774 Web: www.anxietyuk.org.uk
A leading UK charity for anxiety disorders.

NO PANIC (National Organisation For Phobias, Anxiety, Neuroses, Information & Care)

93 Brands Farm Way, Randlay, Telford, Shropshire TF3 2JQ
Helpline: 0808 808 0545 Web: www.nopanic.org.uk
For people with panic attacks, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, and related disorders.

Anxiety Care

Cardinal Heenan Centre, 326 High Road, Ilford, Essex, IG1 1QP
Tel: 020 8478 3400 Web: www.anxietycare.org.uk

Anxiety Alliance

Helpline: 0845 2967877 Web: www.anxietyalliance.org.uk
If you have an anxiety disorder, such as general anxiety, phobias, panic attacks or obsessional compulsive disorder, or wish to withdraw from tranquillisers and anti-depressants, then Anxiety Alliance is there to help, advise and support you.