Traumatic Stress

Our emotions, the way we feel, are important natural warning signals that often start before our conscious mind is even aware of them. They are actually the most powerful determinant of a person’s attitudes and decisions. They can over-ride some of our most fundamental drives. For example, disgust, a basic emotion, can over-ride hunger. Extreme unhappiness, another basic emotion, can over-ride the will to live.


Some emotions emerge for a very good reason. They are meant for our survival. The strong emotions that we feel when something bad happens, and the resulting bad memories that are saved, are meant to remind us that a terrible thing has happened. Remember it, so we won’t let it happen again. Some bad things we would rather just forget, but mother nature won’t let us.

Different Takes

Nearly everyone reacts in some way when trauma hits. Some people may become upset at first but in a short time the feeling fades and the person resumes their daily activity. In others, the same trauma may be nerve-shattering, causing extreme fear and anxiety continue for a long time.

Reactions to a negative event can take one of three different forms: a normal stress reaction, acute stress and post-traumatic stress. A person may experience a pounding heartbeat, fear, shock, perhaps even have difficulty sleeping or eating, as a result of a traumatic event. These feelings may last a few days, weeks, even a month or more. Eventually these feelings subside and the person slowly returns to their normal life.

Acute Stress Disorder

Surprisingly, in as many as one-third of the survivors of a traumatic event the negative emotions do not fade. According to the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM) produced by the American Psychiatric Association, the pure definition of acute stress disorder has negative emotions and symptoms so severe that they interfere with a person’s normal daily acitivities. Acute stress disorder begins within four weeks of the trauma and lasts between two days and one month.

Flashbacks and Nightmares

In addition to these severe symptoms, the person’s sense of self is distorted. They feel disconnected from themselves, spaced-out, like they’re living in a slightly unreal or surreal world. People, places and things that were once familiar just don’t seem real. They feel numb, and act as if they are seeing a movie of themselves and their surroundings. They want to avoid everything involving the traumatic event, and often have flashbacks and nightmares.


The original designation of acute stress disorder had to include an added symptom called dissociation in the early weeks following the traumatic event. This was to distinguish between normal stress that would fade away, and abnormal stress which is a risk factor for and eventually becomes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Not everyone agrees with the separate distinction of acute stress disorder. Many psychiatrists feel that only two stress classifications are necessary: normal stress and post-traumatic stress. The big difference being that emotional reactions remain.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is complex. It has distinct symptoms and types, and is discussed on its own page.

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

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