The emotional effects of highly stressful events vary from person to person. Even so, reactions tend to fall into one of three general categories although sometimes there are elements of overlap:
The initial shock that sometimes follows a stressful event is often referred to as an acute stress reaction. Physical symptoms may include nausea, chest pain, rapid heart rate and difficulty breathing. Acute stress reaction may start immediately or possibly a few minutes following the event. People suffering acute stress reaction may feel dazed, confused and as though they are detached from reality, but other symptoms such as anxiety, anger, irritability and wanting to be left alone are also common.
Very often, the person recovers fairly quickly but sometimes they do not. If the disturbances associated with an acute stress disorder lasts for a minimum of 2 days and a maximum of 4 weeks, and have occurred within 4 weeks of the traumatic event, a diagnosis of acute stress disorder may be considered. For this to be diagnosed however, the problems must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning or impair the individual's ability to pursue some necessary task, such as obtaining necessary assistance.
Adjustment reaction is the term used to describe psychological symptoms that start following a stressful event such as the termination of a relationship, the collapse of a business, a robbery, etc. Symptoms occur within one month of the stressful event, and frequently tend to resolve within six months. They may include marked levels of distress, possibly out of proportion to what might normally be expected. Depression, anxiety, irritability and a sense of being unable to cope are features, although adjustment disorders are also diagnosed according to specific symptoms i.e., adjustment disorder with anxiety, with depression, with disturbance of conduct, and others beside.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also follows a stressful event but tends to come on weeks or even months later. The nature of the event is likely to be quite traumatic and probably very threatening. Although PTSD is often associated with military conflicts it can actually follow any kind of serious incident such as a violent attack, a natural disaster, or even witnessing incidents like a train crash or serious traffic accident. PTSD can occur at any age and persist for years. Symptoms include flashbacks of the incident, nightmares and intense distress with anything associated (sights, sounds, smells) with the trauma. In addition, sufferers often experience generalized anxiety, panic, depression, guilt, hypervigilance, irritability and anger and blunting of their emotions.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition. Washington, DC: American
Published On: November 03, 2012