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Psychotherapy is the treatment of choice for any adjustment disorder, since the disorder is seen as a temporary, somewhat normal reaction to a stressful life event. The form and type of psychotherapy will vary upon the clinician, but as with all psychotherapy, it should occur within a supportive, non-judgmental environment that encourages the client’s growth through exploration of new behaviors and ideas. Solution-focused therapy is the most common approach; it helps the individual deal more effectively with the specific life problem. Often the therapist acts as a partner in therapy, helping guide the client toward finding these new coping mechanisms, or finding a better understanding of issues in their lives.
Adjustment disorder, by definition, is a short-term difficulty that rarely goes beyond 6 months. Lingering feelings may occur beyond that time, but those are natural and likely not severe enough to require additional attention or treatment. It often helps treatment progress (and is required in many agencies) to put together a firm but realistic treatment plan, so the patient can also see the short-term nature of the therapy. Clinicians should be careful not to lapse into acting as an advice-giver to individuals who suffer from an adjustment disorder.
The exact content and type of therapy used will vary widely. Treatment will often emphasize the importance of social support within the client’s life, alternative activities to explore or find meaning in, increasing a person’s range and effectiveness of coping skills, learning better ways of dealing with stress, etc. If stress is an issue, therapy may also offer relaxation training and techniques and examine methods for reducing stress.
Family therapy may be appropriate for certain individuals, especially if the presenting person is an adolescent. This type of therapy also is appropriate when the family is “scapegoating” a particular family member, or there is a clear “identified patient,” when the actual problem is family-systems related. Education related to the disorder is sometimes needed, and the family can be reassured as to the nature and seriousness of the disorder, as well as its prognosis. Couples therapy is appropriate when the disorder is additionally negatively affecting the romantic relationship.
It is imperative that a thorough initial evaluation be conducted to ensure that the individual is suffering from only an adjustment disorder and not a more serious mental disorder. This evaluation should also be used to determine the best modality of treatment to ensure effectiveness.
Medications are generally not appropriate for adjustment disorder, unless the disorder is complicated by another psychiatric problem. For example, patients who present to their physicians with a current adjustment disorder, and who also have a history of anxiety and/or depression, may warrant consideration of medication therapy during a difficult adjustment period.
Self-help methods for the treatment of this disorder are often overlooked by the medical profession because very few professionals are involved in them. Often people with this disorder will gain the most help from attending a group related to their specific problem. This could be anything, ranging from someone who just got divorced, to someone who was just diagnosed with cancer, to dealing with job loss, etc. Thousands of such support groups exist in communities across the nation, so finding an appropriate one is usually not difficult. This allows for the sharing of information and experiences which can be vital in the road to recovery. Social support is also a vital component of a self-help group, and increased social support usually leads to better and quicker recovery.
As an adjunct to regular psychotherapy, people can also be encouraged to use a support group to try out new coping skills and express their feelings to others who have gone through similar experiences. This is usually very rewarding and helpful. For more on symptoms, please see symptoms of adjustment disorder.