Acute Stress Disorder versus PTSD in Teens

If your teen has recently experienced trauma, then you may see psychological symptoms that need immediate care. Most people are familiar with the term PTSD, which is an acronym for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, PTSD is a diagnosis that is provided to a teen one month (or later) after a trauma has occurred. Acute Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder both emerge as a result of experiencing trauma. However, PTSD includes symptoms that last longer than a month and become chronic and ongoing.

It’s possible for a teen to experience trauma, exhibit signs of psychological stress, and then heal from those symptoms within a short period of time after the trauma. In other words, PTSD is an illness that a teen develops if they are not able to quickly heal from having experienced a trauma. In fact, the term acute in medical and psychological settings means that an illness has a rapid onset, a short course, or both. Acute Stress Disorder indicates the short course of symptoms, while PTSD indicates that a teen is experiencing chronic symptoms as a result of trauma.

A trauma is an experience that a person perceives to be life threatening. And in many cases, trauma is life threatening. Types of experiences that are traumatic include rape, death in the family, witnessing a crime, death of a close friend, domestic violence, or experiencing a natural disaster. Experiences that create intense fear, horror, or helplessness, along with a threat of death to oneself or others are also traumatic.

The following are symptoms that can occur in both Acute Stress Disorder as well as PTSD. However, the length of time experiencing these symptoms, as described above, will indicate the illness a teen has.

  • Feeling numb, detached, or emotionally unresponsive
  • Forgetting important aspects of the traumatic event
  • De-realization, a symptom in which the environment seems strange or unreal
  • De-personalization, a symptom in which thoughts and feelings do not seem real
  • Recurring images of the trauma
  • Feelings of reliving the traumatic event
  • Feelings high levels of stress when an object or person reminds you of the event
  • Avoiding people, objects, and places that stimulate reliving the trauma
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Chronic tension
  • Easily startled
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Inability to sit still

These symptoms might impair your teen’s ability to function well in school, home life, or extracurricular activities. You might see a drop in grades, unhealthy family interactions, or a loss of interest in social activities. Up to 33% of teens will develop Acute Stress Disorder after experiencing trauma. Teens who continue having symptoms and go on to develop PTSD do so for a variety of reasons. For instance, they may have experienced trauma in the past, have another form of mental illness, tend to dissociate during traumatic events, or who have had Acute Stress Disorder or PTSD in the past.

If you are a parent or caregiver of a teen who has experienced trauma, it’s best to have them assessed by a mental health provider. Doing so can prevent any illnesses from developing right from the start.