Everything Parents Should Know About Acute Stress Disorder

Everything Parents Should Know About Acute Stress Disorder

When a distressing event such as death in the family, natural disaster, violent act or medical emergency takes place, it is perfectly normal for kids to become upset. However, if a child experiences a particularly strong reaction to a disturbing event, it might result in an impaired ability to cope with not only the event itself but other things in the child’s life. When this happens within three days to a month after the event, it’s possibly the result of acute stress disorder.

We sat down with Counseling Psychology Doctoral Student Alexandria Littlejohn, M.S., from The BRAIN Center at The University of Memphis to discuss what parents need to know about acute stress disorder.

What is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is an intense, unpleasant psychological reaction occurring immediately after an overwhelming, particularly stressful event. ASD is a normal response occurring three days to one month after a person directly or indirectly experiences a stressful life event. Direct exposure may include serious injury, violence or a life‐threatening incident, such as motor vehicle collision, sports injury, gunshot wound, exposure to community violence, and death of a loved one. Indirect exposure may include witnessing or learning of events that have occurred to family members, friends and community members.

Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder

It is common for people to experience a range of unpredictable emotions and physical symptoms in the days and weeks following a traumatic event. Symptoms include:

  • Intrusive distressing memories, flashbacks or nightmares of the traumatic event(s)
  • Sadness or inability to experience positive emotions
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability or angry outbursts
  • Excessive attention to the possibility of danger (hypervigilance)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling jumpy or easily startled
  • Avoiding people, places, activities or thoughts closely associated with the traumatic event(s)

ASD may develop when more intense symptoms linger for up to a month after a traumatic event and begin to interfere with daily functioning, such as school, work or social life.

Coping Skills for managing ASD

Deep Breathing is one of the most effective ways to manage stress responses and regulate physiological symptoms of stress, such as increased heart rate, chest pain, difficulty breathing or high blood pressure. Breathing deeply sends a message to your brain to relax, which is then sent from your brain to your body. One technique for deep breathing is 4‐7‐8 breathing:

  • Take a deep breath in, slowly from your belly, while silently counting to 4
  • Hold your breath and silently count from 1 to 7
  • Breathe out, getting all of the air out of your lungs, while silently counting to 8 — repeat until you feel calm

Research also shows that talking to a trusted person in your life can provide support that may help you manage the effects of a traumatic event. However, when symptoms are persistent, having a trusted family member or friend to talk to might not be enough.

When to Seek Help

If you notice your child’s distress is interfering with daily functioning, relationships, work or school you should reach out to a mental health professional.

Counseling Services Offered at Le Bonheur

Dr. Eraina Schauss, founder and director of The BRAIN Center at the University of Memphis, has partnered with Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital to provide counseling services to trauma patients and their caregivers. Trauma Counseling Services at Le Bonheur, led by clinical director Dr. Kiersten Hawes, aims to strengthen the social‐emotional health of patients and families who have been affected by various life‐altering events upon admission. Dr. Hawes oversees an integrated behavioral health team consisting of graduate student interns from The University of Memphis who conduct screenings for acute stress and behavioral health concerns and provide evidenced based counseling interventions for children and families seen in the Inpatient and Outpatient Trauma Clinic.

Want to learn more about Trauma Services at Le Bonheur?

Trauma Services

Want to find an appointment for your child?
Call 1-866-870-5570.

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