Sometimes life throws a little too much at a person, and they may not have the tools to cope with what they are experiencing. The situation may not cause long-term struggles, but there may be a period of time in which the person has a hard time dealing with everything that is happening to them. This might be a case where a person could receive a diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder (also known as Stress Response Syndrome).
What Is an Adjustment Disorder?
According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine Website, adjustment disorders:
- Are the result of stress
- Impact children and adolescents more often than adults
- Can have a variety of symptoms, depending on underlying cause
- Can be diagnosed by the psychiatrist or licensed therapist
- Can be treated through a variety of therapy options
- Can sometimes present with anxiety, depression, or conduct issues
What Can Trigger Adjustment Disorders?
WebMD lists a number of very stressful events that can lead to adjustment disorders. These include:
- Loss of a loved one
- The ending of a marriage or relationship
- Loss or change in job
- A physical illness
- Being a victim of a crime
- A natural disaster
- Any major life change (even if it brings net gains)
Signs of Adjustment Disorder
As mentioned above, adjustment disorders can manifest in different ways; however, WebMD lists the things doctors look for when making a diagnosis:
- Behavioral changes within three months of a major life event like those listed above
- A more intense level of distress than typically expected in reaction to a major life event
- Significant issues at work, home, and/or school
- Symptoms that don’t seem to be related to any other condition (physical or mental)
The Johns Hopkins article suggests a number of approaches to treating adjustment disorders:
- Individual Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – to work on impulse control, anger management, flawed thinking, and problem-solving skills
- Family Therapy – to work on communication and family interactions
- Group Therapy – to learn alongside peers who are having similar struggles
Medication is not commonly used to treat adjustment disorders because it has not been found to be especially effective.
Adjustment Disorders Versus PTSD
Based on the description above, it would be easy for an untrained person to confuse adjustment disorders with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both conditions do result from one or more stressful life events that are beyond a person’s ability to cope with and elicit a very strong emotional response. The two conditions vary in that PTSD tends to have more intense symptoms and is generally longer lasting, while adjustment disorders often resolve within six months.
Adjustment Disorders Versus Depression
There can also be considerable overlap in the observable symptoms of depression and adjustment disorder. In fact, adjustment disorders are sometimes referred to as “situational depression,” meaning that the person suffering from this diagnosis is struggling because of the situation they currently face, as opposed to a chemical issue in their brain or a long-term mental health struggle. Adjustment disorders can manifest as tearfulness, loss of joy in activities that previously made the person happy, and feelings of hopelessness. Adjustment disorder is not truly considered depression, however, as the symptoms of adjustment disorder tend to be less intense.
Because mental health diagnoses can often have overlapping symptoms, anyone who is struggling with what could be a mental health condition should seek out support from a qualified professional. A primary care physician can rule out any physical health causes for the symptoms being experienced and give a referral for a qualified mental health clinician. If it seems likely that the condition is related to mental health, a therapist or counselor can support the person in working through the challenges they are facing.
If you recognize some of these symptoms in yourself and are wondering if it’s time to seek help, it probably is. Some signs to look for include:
- Emotional struggles that persist over time
- Difficulty getting through day-to-day activities
- Suicidal thoughts
- Changes in sleep or appetite
- Difficulty focusing
- Emotional regulation issues
Self-Care for Adjustment Disorders
While trained professionals can be hugely helpful in addressing adjustment disorders, it is also important to take care of one’s mental health regardless of whether a diagnosis has been made. Self-care behaviors can include:
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating a healthy diet
- Spending time with loved ones
- Finding activities that give you a sense of purpose
- Practicing coping skills learned in therapy sessions