Acute stress is the most common form of stress, and something that most of us will experience at some time in life.
It can be exciting and uplifting, even helping us to achieve some short term goals! Stress in small doses can help enhance our body’s systems, so that we cope better with the demands of everyday life.
However like many things in life, stress is best when experienced in moderation.
Sometimes acute stress comes from real, immediate pressures, or it can be from worry about the present, past or future. Less often, acute stress is triggered by a traumatic incident. In either case, it is useful to take action to prevent the stress from becoming overwhelming and leading to further difficulties.
Most people recognise the common signs and symptoms of acute stress. However some symptoms are less obvious and can creep up on you. Whilst you don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, it can begin to take it’s toll on your relationships in all areas of your life.
Common Signs & Symptoms
- Behaviour – changes in eating and sleeping, withdrawal and isolation, procrastination, nervous habits, use of drugs and alcohol.
- Thinking – worry, trouble concentrating and making decisions, memory difficulties.
- Emotional distress – anger, irritability, anxiety, depression, feeling overwhelmed.
- Physical – aches and pains, heartburn, diarrhoea, constipation, elevations in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, nausea.
Trauma & Acute Stress
When there is a traumatic incident that triggers acute stress, the following signs and symptoms may develop. These are common reactions to trauma and many people find these symptoms will settle quickly, particularly with support from family and friends.
- Excessive alertness, on the look-out for signs of danger, being easily startled.
- Fatigue/exhaustion, disturbed sleep.
- General aches and pains.
- Intrusive thoughts and memories of the event.
- Visual images of the event, including nightmares.
- Poor concentration and memory, disorientation, confusion.
- Avoidance of places or activities that are reminders of the event.
- Social withdrawal and isolation, and loss of interest in normal activities.
- Fear, numbness and detachment.
- Depression, guilt, anger and irritability, anxiety and panic.
When we have acute stress too often it can be exhausting. If acute stress becomes a pattern in your life, this may lead to persistent tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain and heart disease. Even if you see these episodes as part of who you are, the way you interact with others and the way you live your life, you may still benefit from treatment and perhaps improve your relationships!
Acute stress following a traumatic incident may become extremely distressing, particularly if it lasts for several days to weeks. It is helpful in the first instance to speak with family and friends to ask for practical and emotional support. Talking things through and gaining some helpful coping strategies may be all you need to resolve the symptoms.
However if you find that your symptoms persist, you are increasing your use of alcohol or drugs to cope, or begin to have relationship problems with friends, family or colleagues, you may need to seek professional assistance.
Treatment for Acute Stress
After correct diagnosis by a psychologist or psychiatrist, treatment for acute stress can be tailored to your needs. Interventions are based on best available evidence integrated with individual client characteristics, culture and preferences.
Depending on how long you have had the stress “habit”, therapy may continue for several weeks to months, and may include some elements of behavioural, cognitive (thinking), and lifestyle interventions. You may also need to have a check-up with your doctor to exclude any physical causes for your symptoms.
Registered Psychologist Mia Olsson has had a broad interdisciplinary role in the health industry for over thirty years, including hospital-based nurse training, and an Honours Degree majoring in Psychology completed in 1990. She has a particular interest in assisting clients with anxiety – such as panic attacks – and depressive disorders, acute and chronic complex trauma, and health related issues.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.
- American Psychological Association. (2005). Policy statement on evidence-based practice in psychology. 2005 Presidential task force on Evidence-Based Practice.
- American Psychological Association. (2014). Stress: The different kinds of stress. Retrieved November 24, 2014, from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-kinds.aspx
- Australian Psychological Society. (2010). Evidence-based Psychological Interventions in the Treatment of Mental Disorders (3rd ed.).
- Australian Psychological Society. (2014). Understanding and Managing Psychological Trauma. Retrieved November 24, 2014, from http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/tip_sheets/trauma/
The information on this topic page is NOT a substitute for proper diagnosis, treatment or the provision of advice by an appropriate health professional.