Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Stress disorders, however, are of a different magnitude. These occur as a result of profound trauma, such as encountering or witnessing a death, or experiencing serious injury. People with stress disorders exhibit intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Acute stress disorder occurs soon after the traumatic event and lasts for a month or less. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may begin within a few days of an event or may have delayed onset—sometimes as long as 30 to 40 years—and continues for more than three months.
Signs and SymptomsA stress disorder is often accompanied by the following signs and symptoms.
- Flashbacks, dreams, and intrusive thoughts
- Avoidance of anything that prompts recollection of the trauma
- Inability to recall aspects of the traumatic event
- Detachment, a decrease in emotional responsiveness
- A sense that one's future will be cut short
- Impulsiveness, risk-taking
- Overreactions, such as increased arousal and startled response
- Problems functioning normally in work and social settings
What Causes It?Stress conditions are caused by the combination of a traumatic event and a strong reaction to it. Such traumas include war, rape, inappropriate sexual experience, illness, bereavement, or natural disaster.
Who's Most At Risk?People with the following conditions or characteristics are at a higher-than-average risk for developing a stress disorder.
- Women are at greater risk than men
- Older people and children
- People with the following personality traits: neurotic, extroverted, poor self-confidence, past history of psychiatric problems
- Genetic predisposition
- Guilt or shame
- Lack of social support or financial security
- Early separation from parents, childhood neglect
- Alcoholic parents
What to Expect at Your Provider's OfficeIf you are experiencing symptoms associated with stress disorder, you should see your health care provider. He or she can help make a diagnosis and guide you in determining which treatment or combination of therapies will work best for you.
Your provider will do a physical examination, noting if you appear pale, tired, or disoriented. Diagnostic procedures may include a psychiatric exam and psychological testing, hypnosis in cases of amnesia, and an electroencephalogram (EEG) to rule out brain damage or diagnose sleep disorder. Imaging techniques can also rule out brain damage.
PreventionCrisis intervention can help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder from developing.
Treatment PlanWhile symptoms associated with acute stress usually automatically decrease with time, chronic stress requires a longer and more complex treatment plan. Crisis intervention may provide support, acceptance, and education. Psychotherapy can help people master their fears and overcome avoidance behaviors.
Drug TherapiesYour provider may prescribe the following medications for symptom relief (although none has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for this use):
- Benzodiazepines—drugs used as minor tranquilizers and hypnotics
- Antidepressants to reduce anxiety and impulsiveness
- Sedating antidepressants to relieve insomnia
Complementary and Alternative TherapiesA comprehensive treatment plan for stress disorders may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies.
Following these nutritional tips may reduce symptoms.
- Avoid refined foods such as sugar and baked goods, as well as inflammatory foods such as caffeine, alcohol, dairy, and animal products.
- Increase foods that nourish the nervous system, such as whole grains, fresh vegetables, and foods rich in essential fatty acids such as nuts, seeds, and cold-water fish.
- Digestive enzymes, including betaine HCL, to support proper digestive function
- B-complex (50 to 100 mg a day), calcium (1,000 mg a day), and magnesium (400 mg a day), which may be depleted by stress
The following herbal remedies may provide relief from symptoms: a combination of equal parts of passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and oatstraw (Avena sativa) with one to three of the following herbs.
- With anxiety: kava kava (Piper methysticum), motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)
- With insomnia: valerian (Valeriana officinalis), skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia)
- With depression: St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), wood betony (Stachys betonica)
- With digestive upset: wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- With exhaustion: bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus), gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
Herbs are generally available as dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Dose for teas is 1 heaping tsp./cup water steeped for 10 minutes (roots need 20 minutes).
Although people who visit acupuncturists commonly complain of stress, there have been few clinical trials examining the effect of acupuncture specifically on this condition. One small study found that acupuncture helped reduce blood pressure levels in people subjected to mental stress. Another study found that auricular (ear) acupuncture successfully reduced anxiety in some individuals. Because this condition can affect a variety of meridians, treatment is based on an individual assessment. Qualified acupuncturists may also recommend lifestyle/dietary counseling and herbal treatment.
No well-designed studies have evaluated the effect of chiropractic on individuals with stress, but chiropractors report that spinal manipulation may reduce stress in some individuals. It is theorized that spinal manipulation may have a relaxing effect on the body. There is no evidence, however, that this effect is any greater than that potentially achieved by other physical relaxation techniques, including massage.
An experienced homeopath can prescribe a regimen for treating stress disorder that is designed especially for you. Some of the most common acute remedies are listed below.
- Aconite for panic with heart palpitations, shortness of breath
- Arsenicum for anxiety with restlessness
- Phosphorous for free-floating anxiety and foreboding
Prognosis/Possible ComplicationsPeople with stress disorder are at greater risk of developing other mood or anxiety disorders, or experiencing substance abuse. They are predisposed to conditions such as heart disease, insomnia, and gastrointestinal illness. Suicide is more common among people with stress disorder.
Following UpPatients are treated on an outpatient basis until symptoms have subsided. In cases where there is a concern about self-abuse or suicide, the patient will be referred for treatment on an inpatient basis.
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