Adjustment disorder is a psychological disorder which is defined as a transient state of distress and emotional stress, which usually arises in the course of adapting and adjusting to a significant life change, stressful life event or a serious illness.
Symptoms of adjustment disorder usually vary from person to person. However, symptoms begin within three months of a stressful life event and can be emotional, behavioural or both.
- Crying spells
- Lack of enjoyment
- Sleeping problems
- Difficulty in concentration
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Reckless driving
- Ignoring family and friends
- Getting into fights
- Poor performance at school and work
- Ignoring responsibilities
- Vandalizing property
Researchers have still not found out the exact cause of adjustment disorder. The cause is likely to be more complex and may include genetics, person’s temperament, life experiences and chemical changes in the brain.
One or more stressful events of life may put a person at risk of developing an adjustment disorder. They can include both positive or negative events such as:
- Divorce or relationship breakup
- Diagnosis of a serious illness
- Loss of job
- Financial problems
- Death of a loved one
- Not having a baby
- Physical abuse
- Surviving a disaster
The risk of adjustment disorder is usually high if you have experienced some stress in early childhood. Family disruptions, overprotective or abusive parenting and frequent changes early in life may make you vulnerable to adjustment disorder.
Adjustment disorder is diagnosed after thorough psychological evaluation. To be diagnosed with adjustment disorder, symptoms should meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria, published by American Psychiatric Association. These criteria can be:
- Emotional and behavioural symptoms within three months of a specific stressful event in life
- The symptoms should not be due to any other diagnosis
- Excessive stress, resulting in more than normal expected response
- Presence of stress which is causing significant problems in relationships
There are two types of treatment for the adjustment disorder:
Psychotherapy is the main treatment for adjustment disorder. It is also called talk therapy or counselling. The person may undergo individual therapy, group therapy or family therapy. Therapy provides emotional support and helps in getting back to normal life. It helps the person in understanding why the particular event affected him/her so much and learn healthy coping skills to help in dealing with other stressful events that may occur in future.
In some cases, the doctor may prescribe medications to treat some symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications are the most commonly prescribed.
There is no specific way of preventing adjustment disorder. However, developing healthy coping skills and resilience may help during stressful life events. Resilience is the ability to adjust and adapt well to adversity, stress, tragedy or trauma. Some of the ways to improve resilience are:
- Living a healthy lifestyle
- Thinking positively
- Having a good support system
- Seeking for humour or laughter
Most people suffering from this disorder get better within six months and do not have any complications. However, some people may suffer from long-term mental health problems, as a complication of adjustment disorder. These mental health problems include:
- Alcohol and drug addiction
- Suicidal thoughts
Compared to adults, teenagers are at significantly increased risk of long-term mental health problems like:
- Bipolar disorder
- Antisocial personality disorder
When to see a doctor?
Most of the times, you adapt to the stressful changes in your life, and the symptoms of adjustment disorder go away. But often, the symptoms remain as a part of your life, or a new stressful situation comes up.
Consult a doctor or psychiatrist if you are having trouble getting over the stressful situation, and if it is hampering your daily life.
If you or your near one is getting suicidal thoughts or thoughts of hurting themselves, then you should immediately contact a psychiatrist.
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- Adjustment disorder. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000932.htm. Accessed on 26th Sept 2016.
- Adjustment disorder. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/384458/adjustment_disorder.pdf. Accessed on 26th Sept 2016.
- Adjustment disorder. http://childmind.org/guide/guide-adjustment-disorder/what-is-adjustment-disorder/. Accessed on 26th Sept 2016.