Adjustment disorder is a group of symptoms brought on after a stressful event or unexpected change.
Stressful life events find us all. Problems at work, going away to school, moving, or any number of life changes can cause stress.
Everyone reacts or responds to stressful events differently. Most of the time, people learn how to cope with these types of changes.
But if you have an adjustment disorder, your reactions or responses might be stronger than others and last longer than a few months.
Adjustment disorders can affect both children and adults.
These disorders are commonly treated with therapy, medication, or a combo of both. With the right help, you can learn how to cope with life’s stressful events and find relief from your symptoms.
An adjustment disorder involves an emotional response to significant and often stressful life events or changes.
This might include:
For some of us, we can adapt to life’s changes within a few months. But if you have an adjustment disorder, your response might be more severe and last longer.
Not being able to handle changes can lead to physical and mental health symptoms that can affect your day-to-day life at work, school, and in relationships.
An adjustment disorder can occur at any time during your life and at any age.
Before 2013, adjustment disorder was characterized as clinically significant distress that didn’t meet the qualifications for another disorder.
After the 2013 release of the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, adjustment disorder is now part of Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders.
The symptoms are categorized as an emotional or behavioral response to a traumatic event (such as a death or threat) or non-traumatic event (such as relationship issues, loss of a job, or illness).
There are six types of adjustment disorders, each with its own set of unique symptoms:
Adjustment disorder with depressed mood
This type is characterized by persistent feelings of hopelessness, low mood, sadness, and loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed.
Adjustment disorder with anxiety
People experiencing this type of adjustment disorder report feelings of anxiety and excessive worry about the stressor. Constant ruminating and intrusive memories about the stressor are also common.
Concentration can also be affected with this type of adjustment disorder.
Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood
Adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct
Excessive spending, reckless driving, and irrational behaviors characterize the disturbance of conduct associated with this type of adjustment disorder.
Adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct
A person diagnosed with this type of adjustment disorder has symptoms from every type of adjustment disorder, including anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems.
Adjustment disorder unspecified
This type of adjustment disorder presents with unclassified symptoms not associated with the other types of adjustment disorders.
People experiencing this type may have physical symptoms, issues with family and friends, social issues, and problems at school or work.
Someone diagnosed with an adjustment disorder can have a variety of mental and physical health symptoms.
Common mental symptoms of adjustment disorders include:
- acting out
- excessive worry
People may also withdraw from daily activities, have a hard time focusing, and suddenly lack confidence.
Adjustment disorder can also affect a person physically. Some common physical symptoms include:
- muscle trembling
- body pain not associated with an illness
Symptoms of an adjustment disorder typically occur within 3 months of the event, and rarely last longer than 6 months after the event or stressor has ended or been removed.
Some people have only one symptom, while others might have more.
There are a variety of stressful events that can cause an adjustment disorder. In adults, it might be:
- a serious illness diagnosis
- a divorce or separation
- loss of a loved one or pet
- job loss
- money problems
- a major life change (retiring from a job, getting married, or having a baby)
- moving to a new home or city
- experiencing a life-threatening event, such as a natural disaster, assault, or accident
In children and adolescents, some common causes include:
- a parent’s divorce or separation
- the birth of a sibling
- the loss of a pet
- problems at school
We all experience life differently, so what causes an adjustment disorder in one person may not cause it in another.
How we handle stress and our ability to process and cope with difficult situations greatly affects whether we develop an adjustment disorder or not.
If you or someone you know is having trouble coping with a significant life event, help is available.
You can begin by talking with someone you trust and finding emotional support through friends and family.
You can also talk with your family doctor, if you have one. They might be able to refer you to a mental health professional that can provide services in-person or online.
There’s no way to prevent an adjustment disorder. But learning how to process and cope during times of stress can help you learn to deal with and be resilient.
Helpful ways to strengthen your resilience include:
- maintaining a good sense of humor
- having a healthy lifestyle
- establishing a support network
- boosting self-confidence
Also, having a plan for the unexpected can help lessen the stress and increase your ability to cope during critical life events.