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Recognizing Acute Stress

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For those who are familiar with stress, there is a distinct difference between regular stress and acute stress.  While regular stress is a part of daily life in the hectic world of today, acute stress is an altogether different animal.

While stress is certainly a problem, considering that it can cause a weakening of the immune system, problems with memory, an inability to concentrate, and coronary disease, acute stress is something else.  In fact, acute stress can actually cause a complete mental and physical breakdown.

Acute stress is caused by the most severe circumstances. It is often the result of threatened or actual death, serious injury, or some form of physical violation, such as rape.  The person suffering from acute stress usually feels some sort of revulsion or horror at the sight of the event, or from the experience of the event.  Then, after acute stress, the person is at serious risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.  Furthermore, the experience of acute stress can have lasting, even permanent effects upon the person who suffered the acute stress and they may not be able to fully adjust to life after the event.

Acute stress is, at its core, a form of psychological trauma, not unlike physical trauma.  The person is in such a form of mental distress that the brain is almost incapable of coping with the stress and shuts down.  The person who suffers from acute stress feels a sense of numbness and they are unable to connect to the world outside.  They cannot adjust to the reality that surrounds them and they are, in many ways, stuck in the moment when they suffered the acute stress.

The problem with acute stress is that it creates a sort of loop tape in the person's mind, in which they continually replay the event over and over again without being able to stop it.  The event is so completely consuming and yet so terrible that the person who lived through it continues to think about it until they are almost incapable of moving beyond it.

Unfortunately, the results of acute stress are not merely limited to inward issues.  If left unchecked, acute stress can result in anxiety, inability to concentrate, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even nervous breakdown.  Thus, acute stress is no minor issue.  In fact, it must be dealt with quickly in order to prevent serious repercussions upon the mind.

If the symptoms of acute stress, such as detachment, anxiety, or a general desire to avoid anything that may remind the person of the event that caused the acute stress, it is generally considered that the acute stress has transitioned into post-traumatic stress disorder. Thus, anyone who has suffered acute stress should seek some sort of treatment so that this does not happen.

The first form of treatment that comes to most peoples' minds is psychotherapy.  The sessions with a psychiatrist or psychologist are at least familiar to people and they are very useful for treating acute stress.  However, many people shy away from psychotherapy simply because of the stigma attached to it.

Another method of therapy for acute stress is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  CBT is designed to help people deal with their problems or fears through a combination of treatments all working toward the same goal.  The cognitive portion of CBT treats the mind and helps it think differently about its memories.  Then, the behavioral portion helps the person by exposing them to things that will force them to confront their fears or their problems. The behavioral method is already well known as a treatment for phobias and the cognitive treatment is familiar from psychotherapy.  However, by combining these methods into one holistic treatment, CBT can bring about some very good results.

Another method for combating acute stress and its aftermath is through medication.  Depending on the symptoms, a doctor might prescribe an antidepressant, an anti-anxiety drug, or perhaps some other form of medication.  However, people must be very careful with these mood-altering medications, since they do tend to alter the way they think.  Thus, people taking medications like these must monitor themselves and see how they react to their effects.

Overall, acute stress is manageable and it is treatable. And it should be treated, as it can lead to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even a complete mental breakdown.

Though people may think that they are handling it fine, acute stress is a form of mental trauma that is essentially comparable to physical trauma; the more severe the trauma, the more severe the results on the person.  Thus, anyone who has suffered from some traumatic experience that doesn't seem to want to go away should seek treatment as soon as possible.  Though people can't change what happened to them, they can do something to prevent the memories of it from taking over their lives.


By Trevor Dumbleton
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