Adjustment disorders

Specialty of Psychiatry

What are adjustment disorders?

Adjustment disorders are conditions related to stress and having difficulty coping with a stressful life event. The inability to adjust to a stressful event causes physical and psychological symptoms. Both children and adults can be affected by adjustment disorders. This inability to handle a stressful event can result in problems with relationships, work or school.

Symptoms of adjustment disorders:

The most common symptoms and signs of adjustment disorder include:

  • Anxiousness
  • Feeling withdrawn
  • A lack of concentration
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Frequent crying
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Avoiding important things, such as going to work or school or paying bills

Prognosis for adjustment disorders:

As long as you seek help and treatment, you should improve fairly quickly and usually lasts a few months, unless the stressors continue.

How are adjustment disorders diagnosed?

If your GP believes you to be suffering from any of the symptoms described above, you will be referred to a mental health professional. They will review your case, taking a detailed medical and emotional history. You may be given a questionnaire as well. Your specialist will be trying to determine if your symptoms have been present close to any specific stressors experienced recently.

What are the causes of adjustment disorders?

The following stressful events have been attributed to triggering adjustment disorders:

  • Relationship problems (e.g. break-ups, divorce, marital problems)
  • Adverse situations (e.g. losing a job, death of a family member or loved one)
  • Financial problems
  • Changes in situation (e.g. retirement, going away for school, having a baby)
  • Traumatic experiences (e.g. physical assault, combat or living through a natural disaster)

In addition, having experienced stress during childhood and other mental health problems can also contribute to how well you deal with stress and the risk of developing an adjustment disorder.

Can adjustment disorders be prevented?

There are no guaranteed ways to prevent adjustment disorders, however, it can help to have coping skills and resilience to help you through stressful events and situations.

The following can help increase resilience to stress:

  • Having a strong support network
  • Living healthily
  • Having good self-esteem

Treatments for adjustment disorders:

Once your mental health professional has given the diagnosis of an adjustment disorder, a treatment plan will be provided. Treatment is often only needed for a brief period and is found to be very helpful for those suffering from adjustment disorder. Treatment plans usually consist of talking therapy and medications.

Talking therapies used include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • Counselling
  • Family therapy
  • Self-help groups

If medications are prescribed, they will usually be in conjunction with talk therapy. Medicines can help deal with anxiety, sleep problems and depression.

Which type of specialist treats adjustment disorders?

Mental health professionals will treat adjustment disorders (psychologists and psychiatrists).

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