Diagnostic Criteria

A. The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following were present:

  1. the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others
  2. the person's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror

B. Either while experiencing or after experiencing the distressing event, the individual has three (or more) of the following dissociative symptoms:

  1. a subjective sense of numbing, detachment, or absence of emotional responsiveness
  2. a reduction in awareness of his or her surroundings (e.g., "being in a daze")
  3. derealization
  4. depersonalization
  5. dissociative amnesia (i.e., inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma)

C. The traumatic event is persistently reexperienced in at least one of the following ways: recurrent images, thought, dreams, illusions, flashback episodes, or a sense of reliving the experience; or distress on exposure to reminders of the traumatic event.

D. Marked avoidance of stimuli that arouse recollections of the trauma (e.g., thoughts, feelings, conversations, activities, places, people).

E. Marked symptoms of anxiety or increased arousal (e.g., difficulty sleeping, irritability, poor concentration, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, motor restlessness).

F. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning or impairs the individual's ability to pursue some necessary task, such as obtaining necessary assistance or mobilizin personal resources by telling family members about the traumatic experience.

G. The disturbance lasts for a minimum of 2 days and a maximum of 4 weeks and occurs within 4 weeks of the traumatic event.

H. The disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition, is not better accounted for by Brief Psychotic Disorder, and is not merely an exacerbation of a preexisting disorder.

Differential Diagnosis

Normal response to extreme stress

Some symptomatology following exposure to an extreme stress is ubiquitous and often does not require any diagnosis. Acute Stress Disorder should only be considered if the symptoms last at least 2 days and cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning or impair the individual's ability to pursue some necessary task (e.g., obtaining necessary assistance or mobilizing personal resources by telling family members about the traumatic experience).

Other mental disorders

Acute Stress Disorder must be distinguished from a Mental Disorder Due to a General Medical Condition (e.g., head trauma) and from a Substance-Induced Disorder (e.g., related to Alcohol Intoxication), which may be common consequences of exposure to an extreme stressor. In some individuals, psychotic symptoms may occur following an extreme stressor. In such cases, Brief Psychotic Disorder is diagnosed instead of Acute Stress Disorder. If a Major Depressive Episode develops after the trauma, a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder should be considered in addition to a diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder. A separate diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder should not be made if the symptoms are an exacerbation of a preexisting mental disorder.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Adjustment Disorder

By definition, a diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder is appropriate only for symptoms that occur within 1 month of the extreme stressor. Because Posttraumatic Stress Disorder requires more than 1 month of symptoms, this diagnosis cannot be made during this initial 1-month period. For individuals with the diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder whose symptoms persist for longer than 1 month, the diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder should be considered. For individuals who have an extreme stressor but who develop a symptom pattern that does not meet criteria for Acute Stress Disorder, a diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder should be considered.


Malingering must be ruled out in those situations in which financial remuneration, benefit eligibility, or forensic determinations play a role.


Diagnostic Criteria

A. Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways:

  1. Directly experiencing the traumatic event(s).
  2. Witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others.
  3. Learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend. Note: In cases of actual or threatened death of a family member or friend, the event(s) must have been violent or accidental.
  4. Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s) (e.g., first responders collecting human remains; police officer repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse). (Note: This does not apply to exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures, unless this exposure is work related.)

B. Presence of nine (or more) of the following symptoms from any of the five categories of intrusion, negative mood, dissociation, avoidance, and arousal, beginning or worsening after the traumatic event(s) occurred:

  • Intrusion Symptoms
  1. Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event(s). Note: In children older than 6 years, repetitive play may occur in which themes or aspects of the traumatic event(s) are expressed.
  2. Recurrent distressing dreams in which the content and/or affect of the dream are related to the traumatic event(s). Note: In children, there may be frightening dreams without recognizable content.
  3. Dissociative reactions (e.g., flashbacks) in which the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic event(s) were recurring. (Such reactions may occur on a continuum, with the most extreme expression being a complete loss of awareness of present surroundings.) Note: In children, trauma-specific reenactment may occur in play.
  4. Intense or prolonged psychological distress or marked physiological reactions in response to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event(s).
    • Negative Mood
  5. Persistent inability to experience positive emotions (e.g., inability to experience happiness, satisfaction, or loving feelings).
    • Dissociative Symptoms
  6. An altered sense of the reality of one's surroundings or oneself (e.g., seeing oneself from another's perspective, being in a daze, time slowing).
  7. Inability to remember an important aspect of the traumatic event(s) (typically due to dissociative amnesia and not to other factors such as head injury, alcohol, or drugs).
    • Avoidance Symptoms
  8. Efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or closely associated with the traumatic event(s).
  9. Efforts to avoid external reminders (people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations) that arouse distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or closely associated with the traumatic events(s).
    • Arousal Symptoms
  10. Sleep disturbance (e.g., difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless sleep).
  11. Irritable behavior and angry outbursts (with little or no provocation) typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people or objects.
  12. Hypervigilance.
  13. Problems with concentration.
  14. Exaggerated startle response.

C. Duration of the disturbance (symptoms in Criterion B) is 3 days to 1 month after trauma exposure. (Note: Symptoms typically begin immediately after the trauma, but persistence for at least 3 days and up to a month is needed to meet disorder criteria.)

D. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

E. The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., medication or alcohol) or another medical condition (e.g., mild traumatic brain injury) and is not better explained by brief psychotic disorder.

Differential Diagnosis

Adjustment disorders

In acute stress disorder, the stressor can be of any severity rather than of the severity and type required by Criterion A of acute stress disorder. The diagnosis of an adjustment disorder us used when the response to a Criterion A event does not meet the criteria for acute stress disorder (or another specific mental disorder) and when the symptom pattern of acute stress disorder occurs in response to a stressor that does not meet Criterion A for exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence (e.g., spouse leaving, being fired). For example, severe stress reactions to life-threatening illnesses that may include some acute stress disorder symptoms may be more appropriately described as an adjustment disorder. Some forms of acute stress response do not include acute stress disorder symptoms and may be characterized by anger, depression, or guilt. These responses are more appropriately described as primarily an adjustment disorder. Depressive or anger responses in an adjustment disorder may involve rumination about the traumatic event, as opposed to involuntary and intrusive distressing memories in acute stress disorder.

Panic disorder

Spontaneous panic attacks are very common in acute stress disorder. However, panic disorder is diagnosed only if panic attacks are unexpected and there is anxiety about future attacks or maladaptive changes in behavior associated with fear of dire consequences of the attacks.

Dissociative disorders

Severe dissociative responses (in the absence of characteristic acute stress disorder symptoms) may be diagnosed as derealization/depersonalization disorder. If severe amnesia of the trauma persists in the absence of characteristic acute stress disorder symptoms, the diagnosis of dissociative amnesia may be indicated.

Posttraumatic stress disorder

Acute stress disorder is distinguished from PTSD because the symptom pattern in acute stress disorder must occur within 1 month of the traumatic event and resolve within that 1-month period. If the symptoms persist for more than 1 month and meet criteria for PTSD, the diagnosis is changed from acute stress disorder to PTSD.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

In obsessive-compulsive disorder, there are recurrent intrusive thoughts, but these meet the definition of an obsession. In addition, the intrusive thoughts are not related to an experienced traumatic event, compulsions are usually present, and other symptoms of acute stress disorder are typically absent.

Psychotic disorders

Flashbacks in acute stress disorder must be distinguished from illusions, hallucinations, and other perceptual disturbances that may occur in schizophrenia, other psychotic disorders, depressive or bipolar disorder with psychotic features, a delirium, substance/medication-induced disorders, and psychotic disorders due to another medical condition. Acute stress disorder flashbacks are distinguished from these other perceptual disturbances by being directly related to the traumatic experience and by occurring in the absence of other psychotic or substance-induced features.

Traumatic brain injury

When a brain injury occurs in the context of a traumatic event (e.g., traumatic accident, bomb blast, acceleration/deceleration trauma), symptoms of acute stress disorder may appear. An event causing head trauma may also constitute a psychological traumatic event, and traumatic brain injury (TBI)-related neurocognitive symptoms are not mutually exclusive and may occur concurrently. Symptoms previously termed postconcussive (e.g., headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light or sound, irritability, concentration deficits) can occur in brain-injured and non-brain-injured populations, including individuals with acute stress disorder. Because symptoms of acute stress disorder and TBI-related neurocognitive disorder symptoms attributable to TBI may be possible based on the presence of symptoms that are distinctive to each presentation. Whereas reexperiencing and avoidance are characteristic of acute stress disorder and not the effects of TBI, persistent disorientation and confusion are more specific to TBI (neurocognitive effects) than to acute stress disorder. Furthermore, differential is aided by the fact that symptoms of acute stress disorder persist for up to only 1 month following trauma exposure.

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