How Does Acute Stress Disorder Become PTSD?


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (commonly known as “PTSD”) is a mental health condition that is caused by exposure to trauma. Usually, people react to a terrible event with shock or disbelieving horror. Later on, they may express guilt or delayed grief. Anger and indifference are displayed by some while others seem to shut off their feelings entirely.

The highly disturbing nature of certain events like war makes the development of a stress disorder more likely. Soldiers, victims of assault, and survivors of a natural disaster often fall victim to PTSD.

The main reason people develop PTSD is because the high levels of stress cause a change in the brain. The strain associated with PTSD is known to affect the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex, which responsible for emotion regulation and fear. In a person with PTSD, the brain regions in question no longer function the way they should. This can lead to the previously mentioned emotional difficulties as well as heightened stress response.

The change in brain chemistry is likely to blame for the increase in anxiety people with PTSD experience after a trauma.

A study from last year examined predictors of PTSD in people with acute stress disorder. One of the strongest indicators that someone would eventually develop PTSD was startle reactivity. This is basically the strength of the reaction someone has to an unexpected stimulus.  In the context of the experiment, the stimulus was a “high-intensity tone” played on a pair of headphones.

To measure the reactions of the participants to the startling stimulus, the researchers measured a set of physiological signs. The heart rate, perspiration, breathing rate, and muscle activity of each person was recorded before and during the experiment.

For the participants who went on to develop PTSD, the reaction to the startling noise was very strong. In addition to this, the people with acute stress disorder who later had PTSD showed “a lack of startle habituation” even months after the experiment. This means to say that these participants remained highly sensitive to unexpected stimuli. Six months after the original testing, the participants who had PTSD still had strong physiological reactions (i.e., they were very easily startled).

Implications of the Study

It seems that people who have ASD would benefit from intensive treatment after exposure to a traumatic event. With early intervention, it may be possible to prevent people with acute stress disorder from experiencing a worsening of symptoms and eventually being diagnosed with PTSD.

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