Overview

Adjustment disorders are stress-related conditions. You experience more stress than would normally be expected in response to a stressful or unexpected event, and the stress causes significant problems in your relationships, at work or at school.

Work problems, going away to school, an illness, death of a close family member or any number of life changes can cause stress. Most of the time, people adjust to such changes within a few months. But if you have an adjustment disorder, you continue to have emotional or behavioral reactions that can contribute to feeling anxious or depressed.

You don't have to tough it out on your own, though. Treatment can be brief and it's likely to help you regain your emotional footing.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms depend on the type of adjustment disorder and can vary from person to person. You experience more stress than would normally be expected in response to a stressful event, and the stress causes significant problems in your life.

Adjustment disorders affect how you feel and think about yourself and the world and may also affect your actions or behavior. Some examples include:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless or not enjoying things you used to enjoy
  • Frequent crying
  • Worrying or feeling anxious, nervous, jittery or stressed out
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Lack of appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Difficulty functioning in daily activities
  • Withdrawing from social supports
  • Avoiding important things such as going to work or paying bills
  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior

Symptoms of an adjustment disorder start within three months of a stressful event and last no longer than 6 months after the end of the stressful event. However, persistent or chronic adjustment disorders can continue for more than 6 months, especially if the stressor is ongoing, such as unemployment.

When to see a doctor

Usually stressors are temporary, and we learn to cope with them over time. Symptoms of adjustment disorder get better because the stress has eased. But sometimes the stressful event remains a part of your life. Or a new stressful situation comes up, and you face the same emotional struggles all over again.

Talk to your doctor if you continue to struggle or if you're having trouble getting through each day. You can get treatment to help you cope better with stressful events and feel better about life again.

If you have concerns about your child's adjustment or behavior, talk with your child's pediatrician.

Suicidal thoughts or behavior

If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately, go to an emergency room, or confide in a trusted relative or friend. Or call a suicide hotline number — in the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor.

Causes

Adjustment disorders are caused by significant changes or stressors in your life. Genetics, your life experiences, and your temperament may increase your likelihood of developing an adjustment disorder.

Risk factors

Some things may make you more likely to have an adjustment disorder.

Stressful events

Stressful life events — both positive and negative — may put you at risk of developing an adjustment disorder. For example:

  • Divorce or marital problems
  • Relationship or interpersonal problems
  • Changes in situation, such as retirement, having a baby or going away to school
  • Adverse situations, such as losing a job, loss of a loved one or having financial issues
  • Problems in school or at work
  • Life-threatening experiences, such as physical assault, combat or natural disaster
  • Ongoing stressors, such as having a medical illness or living in a crime-ridden neighborhood

Your life experiences

Life experiences can impact how you cope with stress. For example, your risk of developing an adjustment disorder may be increased if you:

  • Experienced significant stress in childhood
  • Have other mental health problems
  • Have a number of difficult life circumstances happening at the same time

Complications

If adjustment disorders do not resolve, they can eventually lead to more serious mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, depression or substance abuse.

Prevention

There are no guaranteed ways to prevent adjustment disorders. But developing healthy coping skills and learning to be resilient may help you during times of high stress.

If you know that a stressful situation is coming up — such as a move or retirement — call on your inner strength, increase your healthy habits and rally your social supports in advance. Remind yourself that this is usually time-limited and that you can get through it. Also consider checking in with your doctor or mental health professional to review healthy ways to manage your stress.