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Adjustment Disorder: What Causes It and How to Treat It

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It’s often been said that nothing is constant about life except change. From changing jobs, to changing living circumstances to changing as a person — it’s no secret that in life, nothing really remains the same.

And while some people thrive under changing circumstances, others may struggle with change — particularly people who live with adjustment disorder, a stress-related mental health condition that can make coping with life changes very difficult.

If you’re currently struggling with a big life transition and don’t know what to do, you’re not alone. It’s natural to struggle with change, but if your reactions feel more intense than usual or it’s affecting your ability to function, we want you to know there is help available. Keep reading to learn more.

What Is Adjustment Disorder?

Adjustment disorder is a short-term mental health condition that results from a person’s difficultly in coping with or adjusting to a major life change or stressor. A person with adjustment disorder often experiences symptoms and emotional responses that may seem more extreme than what a situation might typically warrant.

“When you’re confronted with some sort of stressor in your life, [adjustment disorder] is when we have a maladaptive response to that stressor, meaning that we either have a reaction that is more than one would expect or that our reaction is really getting in the way of our functioning.” Neda Gould, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told The Mighty.

There are six subtypes of adjustment disorder, based on the biggest symptoms you experience. Most people with adjustment disorders experience symptoms of anxiety, depression or both. In some cases, Dr. Gould said, adjustment disorder can be accompanied by behavioral issues like reckless driving, fighting or vandalizing property — which might lead to a diagnosis of another type, adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct.

In general, symptoms of adjustment disorder may include:

  • Feeling depressed, sad or hopelessness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Self-esteem struggles
  • Crying
  • Feeling numb or apathetic
  • Suicidal thoughts

What Causes Adjustment Disorder?

Though adjustment disorders are some of the most-diagnosed mental disorders, the diagnostic criteria remain a bit vague, partially because symptoms often overlap with other mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. But one thing is certain — in order to be diagnosed with adjustment disorder, there needs to be an identifiable life stressor present. 

Some common examples of life stressors that precede adjustment disorder may include:

  • Getting divorced or going through a breakup
  • Death of a loved one
  • Moving to a new location
  • Problems at work or school
  • Losing a job
  • Experiencing an illness or health issue

Mighty contributor Kayla Balserak knows what it’s like to have adjustment disorder. In her piece, “Adjustment Disorder: The Mental Illness We Don’t Talk About,” she wrote about the difficulties she had adjusting after moving from Tucson, Arizona, to a small town in Texas. She wrote:

There were times I would get a surge of motivation to go to the gym or do something that was not just sitting on the couch watching Netflix, but that would often disappear almost as quickly as it came on. I no longer enjoyed doing the things I used to do back in Tucson. I was utterly miserable and I felt so alone.

I tried to read books, but could not concentrate. To be totally honest, I rarely paid attention to the things I was watching on television. My mind was literally everywhere but at the same time, I was totally numb. I would try to clean during the day while my husband was at work, but I literally felt like a snail and when I would finish one chore, I would feel so exhausted so I just went back to the couch.

If you’re struggling after a major transition and can’t explain why your responses seem more intense than normal for you, you’re not alone. It’s worth talking to your doctor or a mental health care professional about what symptoms you’re experiencing. Adjustment disorder or not, you deserve to get the support you need. 

Treatment for Adjustment Disorder

Though there isn’t a treatment out there that targets adjustment disorder specifically, here’s the good news — people with adjustment disorders can benefit greatly from existing mental health treatment interventions like talk therapy and medication. 

“Adjustment disorders tend to be … not as long in duration as other psychiatric illnesses,” Dr. Gould explained. “So basically, the person may not need long-term therapy or long-term medications, but just for this period of time to kind of ease the symptoms.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful for people with adjustment disorder who experience anxiety and depression-related symptoms. For folks who struggle with impulsive or destructive behavior due to adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) — a therapy that focuses on distress tolerance skills — can be particularly helpful. To read more about specific types of therapy, check out our guide on eight common types of therapy.

Many people who receive treatment for adjustment disorder begin to feel more like themselves again fairly quickly and don’t struggle with adjustment disorder again. But sometimes, if a person doesn’t seek out therapy or helpful coping skills, adjustment disorder can return when they experience another major transition or life stressor. In this case, adjustment disorder can become someone’s default response to stress.

“Don’t be hesitant to seek help. It’s not a sign of weakness. Everybody needs additional support at some phase in their life,” Gould said. “So don’t be afraid to ask for extra help from friends family as well as professionals.” 

As you seek help and learn to cope with stressors in your life, it’s important to be gentle with yourself as you heal. To give and get support on your health journey, we encourage you to connect with The Mighty community by posting a Thought or Question with the hashtag #CheckInWithMe. Our community wants to support you, no matter what you’re facing today.

Header image via BruceStanfield/Getty Images

Originally published: October 26, 2019
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