Page medically reviewed by Joanna Robinson (BA, BACP)(MRCPsych, MBChB), Psychotherapist based at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove in August 2022.
What is Adjustment Disorder?
Adjustment disorder is a mental health condition that develops as a result of having to adjust to a particular source of stress, or a traumatic experience. While everyone reacts differently to emotionally traumatic events, if you find that you are experiencing an extreme and overwhelming reaction in relation to the event, it may be that you have developed adjustment disorder.
Adjustment disorder is characterised by a group of symptoms that are similar to but less severe than those experienced in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and can affect both children and adults. Individuals who are struggling with adjustment disorder often find that stress, anxiety and feelings of sadness and hopelessness combine to create an excessively negative response to a particularly stressful life event.
If you suffer from adjustment disorder, you may find that the stressful event continues to disrupt your life and dominate your thoughts. It is also possible that another stressful experience causes you to experience the same emotional struggle again.
Signs of Adjustment Disorder
When you have adjustment disorder, your body’s exaggerated stress response means that you can develop adverse emotional and behavioural symptoms as a result.
While the exact symptoms of adjustment disorder can vary from person to person, and also depend on your general physical and psychological health, the following are the most common adjustment disorder symptoms:
- Headaches or stomach aches
- Heart palpitations
- Less desire to socialise and engage in activities
- A pattern of absence from work or school
- Increase in the use of alcohol or drugs
- Sleep difficulties
- Feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- Frequent crying
The symptoms of adjustment disorder are a less severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
Symptoms experienced are often felt within three months of the triggering event, and rarely last beyond six months after the stressful situation. If you have adjustment disorder, it is likely that you will have problems functioning normally when working or studying.
Causes of Adjustment Disorder
There are a wide range of events that can trigger adjustment disorder, although the most common stressful event triggers for this disorder include:
- Death of a loved one
- Divorce or relationship problems
- Losing a job or changing to a new role
- Illness or other health issues related to yourself or family and friends
- Moving to a different home or a different location
- Unexpected catastrophes
- Financial worries
- Road traffic accident
- Being the victim of crime
For children and adolescents, many of the more common triggers of adjustment disorder apply, although age-specific stresses such as observing confrontation of parents, having problems at school, or experiencing issues with sexuality are just some of the unique problems that this age group has to navigate.
Adjustment Disorder Treatment
As the symptoms of adjustment disorder are likely to be felt short-term, not usually beyond six months after the event has occurred, treatment options include establishing realistic short-term goals to work towards. Talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), group therapy, and family therapy, are often recommended as part of a treatment plan to understand why you feel the way you do and overcome unique challenges.
If adjustment disorder does not resolve in the predicted timeframe, chronic adjustment disorder can eventually lead to more serious mental health problems such as an anxiety disorder or severe depression, which may require longer-term treatment.
Seeking professional psychological treatment for your adjustment disorder can help you to understand why you feel the way that you do as a result of your stressful life event, even if the event was something that was expected. With feelings of anxiety and depression likely to coincide with the disorder, treatment that targets the relief of these mental health conditions can help you return to a more positive mindset.
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