How Acute Stress Syndrome Affects You

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All stress is not the same. Some is good. Some is bad. But stress is always with us in one form or another. There’s no escaping it.

Fight-or-flight response, also known as acute stress, is an anxiety disorder. When we experience either a real or perceived threat to us, it kicks in. The perceived threat can be a physical one, such as an impending plane crash while trapped in a passenger seat. Or an African lion, 100 yards away,  bearing down on us in the middle of the jungle. Or the threat can be emotional as experiencing stage fright from having to give a speech to thousands of your peers that you feel are ready to pick apart every misstep that you make.

The theory of acute stress response has been around since the 1920′s. When this response occurs, the body goes through a host of changes. The blood vessels narrow causing blood to drain away from the skin, hence the expression “he was white as a ghost” to describe someone who has just experienced a frightening event. The drained blood, and oxygen, flows into the muscles, lungs, and large muscles – strengthening them all. The heart rate increases enabling blood to be pumped to the various body organs faster. And the pupils of the eye becomes dilated allowing for sharper vision.

In addition to the above symptoms, the adrenal glands secrete the “stress hormone” cortisol which floods through the body. Cortisol has an immediate and dramatic effect on the body. Reflexes are heightened, immunity is increased, sensitivity to pain is decreased, and the body is suddenly filled with energy and ready to run or fight.

Prime candidates for acute stress are soldiers returning from war. Many of the troops coming home from Iraq have experienced high levels of acute stress resulting in post tramatic stress disorder. Many people in the medical field, such as doctors and nurses, experience this as well.

Acute stress disorder is something a bit more serious. It is something that develops after the initial traumatic event that may have caused acute stress in the person. It’s triggered by the person merely remembering the event. Only a licensed therapist or psychologist can diagnose acute stress disorder, but some symptoms are:

1) Trouble focusing – the person may have difficulty concentrating or maintaining a train of thought and may appear as though he’s in a stupor or fog.

2) Detachment and a decrease in emotional responsiveness – the person may seem emotionally aloof, as if they’ve detached themselves from their feelings in order to avoid further pain.

3) Ongoing Short term amnesia – the person may go into a room to get something but suddenly can’t remember what it was he wanted. Or, he may start to ask you an important question, but can’t remember what he wanted to ask.

In order for symptoms to be classified as acute stress disorder, they must take place within 1 month subsequent to the initial traumatic event. This disorder is very closely related to post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. PTSD is basically a longer lasting form of acute stress disorder.

Broadly speaking, stress is normally thought of as bad for us. But, in reality, acute stress or short term stress is a centuries old survival mechanism that helps us to cope with wrenching events in our lives.

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