Acute Stress Reaction

If you were to have an acute stress reaction, you would be involved in or be witness to a traumatic event causing extreme, intense or unexpected fear, pain or stress. You would either experience serious injury or threat of, or perceived serious injury or death to yourself or someone else.

This type of reaction is brought on by your mind and body responding to intense feelings of helplessness to an actual or perceived traumatic event.


Symptoms of acute stress vary, however you may seem as though you are in a state of shock and in a daze at first. You may struggle to comprehend what it is going on in your surroundings and be disorientated.

The next stage of symptoms include elements of hyper arousal. You will most likely be anxious and/or agitated, experience confusion and impaired judgements. You may also experience an onset of depression.

It would be common to feel panic and have bodily reactions such as sweating, palpitations and a dry throat.

In my experience as TRiM (Trauma Risk Management) Manager and counsellor for a police service, I have seen many officers and staff with reactions of this kind. I would not be surprised by anyone having the above symptoms in the early days after a traumatic event and it is helpful for the person to hear that they are having a normal reaction to something we would not normally see or be part of.

Most of the time, symptoms will dramatically reduce or even disappear within two or three days after the event.

Acute Stress Disorder can develop very shortly, sometimes immediately, after exposure to a traumatic incident. Symptoms for this can last for two days to a maximum of four weeks. Here are some common symptoms for Acute Stress Disorder (ASD):

  • Numbing
  • Detachment
  • Some element of re-experiencing of the event such as flashbacks, thoughts and/or dreams
  • Avoidance of reminders of the event

To be diagnosed with ASD, you would also experience symptoms of anxiety with significant impairment in at least one area of essential functioning.

If your symptoms persist and progressively worsen over a period of 28 days after the event, then there is a possibility that you are developing a more serious condition such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Please contact your doctor or a medical professional if you are concerned about the symptoms you are experiencing.

For advice on how to cope following a traumatic event - see my page on trauma advice.

Look at how the brain reacts when exposed to potentially traumatic events - the role of the Amygdala and Hippocampus.

See my page on PTSD for more information about symptoms.

TRiM (Trauma Risk Management) is a peer based risk management process used within the Military, some emergency services and other organisations whose employees are exposed to potentially traumatic events.

See my Stress Management page for top tips and ways to manage your stress

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