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Adjustment Disorders: Causes & Symptoms

Katelyn Hagerty FNP

Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 1/12/2022

If you’ve ever watched a friend or loved one experience trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder and struggle with it afterwards, you have the basics to understand adjustment disorders. 

Adjustment disorders are a major problem because, at the end of the day, they’re often a blindspot for people 

Maybe you’ve lost a job recently, taken home a new (loud, crying) baby or are simply juggling too many responsibilities after someone else at work or home has taken ill. 

For the majority of people, this stress is manageable, but adjustment disorders are a new level of stress and anxiety that should be addressed with professional help. 

We can help you help yourself or others with these issues by providing some context and tools to deal with new or chronic adjustment disorders — starting with a good definition.

What Are Adjustment Disorders?

So, how do we go about a diagnosis of an adjustment disorder?

Adjustment disorders are a type of mental disorder characterized by a group of symptoms including sadness, hopelessness, stress and some physical symptoms that come as a result of stressful events. 

In other words, adjustment disorder is a collection of symptoms you experience when struggling to adjust after a triggering event.

Often characterized as an excessive or unhealthy response to a trigger, adjustment disorder is really just a sense of overwhelm due to a major change.

It’s very difficult to predict who might have chronic adjustment disorders, in part because there’s no way to predict many major life changes. 

Likewise, until someone has demonstrated how they deal with stress, it’s difficult to predict who will and will not be able to properly adjust, and who might struggle.

In essence, however, adjustment disorder is typically associated with the effectiveness of your coping mechanisms and strategies for something bad.

Symptoms of Adjustment Disorders

Adjustment disorders carry several behavioral symptoms that may, on the surface, appear to have much in common with depression and anxiety. 

Many of the same symptoms — stress, hopelessness, sadness, emptiness — are associated with adjustment, anxiety and depressive disorders like major depression

When these things affect your ability to function, it becomes a key signal that disordered thinking may be at play, and that you may have a disorder.

The key difference in adjustment disorder as compared to other disorders is that it has a particular cause, and a particular timeline: adjustment disorder comes after identifiable stressors like a major life event or change, and it represents a struggle to cope or adapt to the identifiable stressor or changes that major life event has brought to your daily life, routines, relationships, etc.

That said, adjustment disorders may present with both anxious and depressed mood symptoms. It’s entirely possible to have both symptoms of depression and adjustment disorder.

The type of adjustment disorder you might have can also be characterized with subtypes, which may include adjustment with depressed mood (depressive symptoms), adjustment with mixed anxiety, adjustment with depression and adjustment disorder with anxiety. 

You may experience adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct (a destructive response, possibly including irritable mood), all three or none of the above.

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Causes of Adjustment Disorders

Adjustment disorders have a long list of causes — essentially, anything that causes you to stress in a new or unfamiliar way (or even in a familiar way) can count as a triggering event for adjustment disorder. 

Typically, however, adjustment disorder triggers fall into a few categories. Those categories include school, family, sexuality, work, death, relationships, moving — anything that upsets your typical routines by causing hopelessness or anxiety.

They are most often seen in children and adolescents, but adults are also likely to experience adjustment disorders from major triggers.

What might cause an adjustment disorder in you could be many things. 

For instance, you might suffer from an adjustment disorder after a divorce, the death of a loved one, illness and other health issues. You may experience one after moving to a different city, home or job. You can also experience one if you’re having problems at work or school, or dealing with questions or issues related to your relationships or sexuality.

These are all potential triggers.

While it’s common for children and adolescents, qualifications like gender or cultural factors don’t change your risk factor for adjustment disorder. 

Risk factors for an increased chance of developing an adjustment disorder are hard to define, but the key to remember in your own mental health journey is to be compassionate with yourself and understand that you don’t have to “earn” these feelings. 

Even happy events — moving into a bigger house or the birth of a child or sibling — might cause adjustment problems.

Whether it’s the death of a parent, spouse or a pet, or just moving a little farther away from good friends, there are plenty of totally understandable reasons why someone might feel the way they do.

How Adjustment Disorders are Treated

The good news is that like depression and other mental disorders with emotional symptoms, there are ways to pursue treatment of adjustment disorder.

Effectively treating psychiatric disorders like adjustment disorder may often require you to gather more information. You should be conscious of the frequency and severity of symptoms of adjustment disorder, and what could have triggered them to begin with. 

Once you have a good idea of your resulting symptoms and underlying causes (a healthcare professional can help you find these) you can look into treatment options.

Adjustment disorders generally respond well to behavioral therapy and specifically cognitive behavioral therapy practices. 

Therapy may take more forms for adjustment disorders than things like therapy for anxiety disorders or depressive disorders. 

You may benefit from family therapy, where your family can be part of the process with you.

Or you may benefit from peer group therapy, where you can practice some interpersonal skills and develop better and more effective coping skills and coping mechanisms for some of the psychological symptoms like nervousness.

Medications may also be an effective way to handle these feelings and the disorder — talk with a mental health professional to learn more about what options may be right for you.

It’s possible that medication may not have value in the treatment of an adjustment disorder, so unless you show signs of other issues, this may not be necessary.

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What to Do If You’re Experiencing an Adjustment Disorder

This is a good time to have the quality of life conversation. 

The truth is that stress-related disturbance can take many forms, and adjustment disorder is just one of them. The best way to find out what you’re dealing with is talking to a healthcare provider.

Adjustment disorders are difficult to prevent. Even in the cases where the changes in your life from an event are predictable, your reaction very well may not be, and so you and your loved ones might simply be caught off guard.

The good news is that it’s not your fault, and not something you should be ashamed of. Instead, it’s something you should feel comfortable talking about openly and seek help and support for if you believe it’s hindering your ability to function.

If you’re dealing with these symptoms right now, learning more about your therapeutic options might be the right next step for you to take, in which case consider reading our guide, What Is Psychotherapy & How Does It Work?.

If you’re ready to do something about adjustment disorder right now, consider online therapy as your first step towards getting better. 

Whether you take the time to start the treatment journey now or tomorrow, or even next week, your symptoms aren’t going anywhere without the support you need. 

Losing friends, loved ones, partners, communities and jobs can cause serious emotional symptoms without that support. And you owe it to yourself to get it now.

2 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Adjustment disorder: Medlineplus medical encyclopedia. MedlinePlus. Retrieved December 21, 2021, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000932.htm.
  2. Adjustment disorders. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved December 21, 2021, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/adjustment-disorders

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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