An adjustment disorder is a strong reaction to stress or trauma. A stressor could be a positive or negative event. It causes short-term symptoms that affect your thoughts, behaviors and emotions. Your reaction may be more expressive than what others might expect. There are different types of this disorder, and treatment involves therapy and sometimes medications.
An adjustment disorder is a strong emotional or behavioral reaction to stress or trauma. It causes short-term symptoms that may make you react more than you typically would. You may cry easily or feel depressed and hopeless. You might overindulge in risky behaviors, or act recklessly or impulsively. The behaviors and feelings vary from person to person.
Sometimes, one event can cause adjustment disorder symptoms. Other times, multiple events can cause symptoms after pushing you to a breaking point. Symptoms usually lessen after six months.
Your healthcare provider might refer to an adjustment disorder as situational depression.
There are several types of adjustment disorders classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses (DSM-5) or the latest version, the DSM-5-TR (“TR” stands for “text revision”). This is the American Psychiatric Association’s guide to mental health conditions. Types of adjustment disorders and associated symptoms include:
Researchers are still learning how common adjustment disorders are. One global study found that adjustment disorders affect an estimated 2% of people around the world. A U.S. study estimated that 5% to 20% of outpatient mental health visits were for adjustment disorders.
Statistics on adjustment disorders can vary due to the different groups surveyed and varying diagnostic criteria.
Adjustment disorder symptoms affect each person differently and vary by type. Common symptoms include:
If at any point you feel like hurting yourself or are thinking about suicide, contact a healthcare provider or contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting 988 (U.S.). Someone is available to talk with you 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Coping with a stressor or traumatic event causes adjustment disorders. A stressor is an event or situation that causes stress (your body’s physical and emotional reaction to change).
Common examples could include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
Stress affects each person differently. Sometimes, a lot can happen at once and you simply haven’t had time to take care of yourself. Not all stressors are traumatic. They could revolve around very positive changes in your life. But when stress takes over, you won’t feel like yourself.
Triggers are reminders of a stressful event or trauma. Triggers usually come with a strong memory and can affect how you feel when you see or interact with the reminder. It can cause symptoms of adjustment disorder. Anything can be a trigger for adjustment disorder, including:
This isn’t an exhaustive list, since triggers are very personal to the person they affect. Symptoms of an adjustment disorder can vary from mild to severe, depending on the intensity of the triggering situation and the personal significance it has for you.
An adjustment disorder can affect anyone at any age — from children to adults. It’s more common among women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) than men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB). The following may put you more at risk of developing an adjustment disorder:
Complications of adjustment disorders can be life-threatening and may include:
If your symptoms become so overwhelming that it’s difficult for you to make it through the day, call your healthcare provider. If you have suicidal thoughts, get help immediately. Call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
To diagnose adjustment disorder, a healthcare provider will offer a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms. They may refer you to a mental health provider like a psychologist or a psychiatrist for a mental health evaluation and to confirm the diagnosis.
A psychologist or psychiatrist will refer to the diagnostic criteria in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) to make a diagnosis. The criteria for adjustment disorder include:
You may hear your provider further identify your condition as acute or chronic:
Your cultural background or norms may affect how you experience and express grief or stress. Your healthcare provider will take this into account when determining if your response to a stressor is more than expected.
Treatment for adjustment disorders may include:
Your healthcare provider may recommend combining medications with therapy. Medications shouldn’t be the only form of treatment. Many people see success with therapy only and you might not need medications.
Since a stressful or traumatic situation causes adjustment disorders, having a trusted person to talk to and getting tools to learn how to cope with the situation can be very helpful.
A healthcare provider may prescribe the following medications based on what symptoms you experience:
Your healthcare provider may also prescribe medications to help you sleep.
Symptoms of adjustment disorder usually go away after six months. Some cases may persist beyond six months (chronic adjustment disorder). It’s common to continue treatment, like participating in a type of therapy, throughout your life. Continuing treatment even after you feel better can reduce your risk of developing symptoms when other stressors impact you.
You can’t prevent all causes of adjustment disorders. But you can take steps to reduce your stress and better adapt to change, like:
An adjustment disorder is a short-term condition. It can affect many aspects of your life, from your physical to your mental health. It can also affect your relationships and your ability to meet personal commitments while you’re experiencing symptoms.
With treatment, recovery is possible. Therapy can help you recognize when negative thoughts and feelings happen and how to react to them in a healthy way. Therapy can be challenging. It’s difficult to open up and share your thoughts and feelings with a stranger, but your therapist is a highly trained healthcare provider whose goal is to help you feel better.
You can also build a support system, like joining a support group or talking with friends or loved ones, to help you when you don’t feel like yourself.
An adjustment disorder goes away over time when you remove or adapt to the stressor that triggered your symptoms. On average, the condition resolves within six months. It may continue if stress persists. You may feel better sooner with treatment.
Seek medical attention if you or a loved one experience feelings or behaviors that seem out of the norm or stronger than usual, especially after a stressful event.
Seek medical attention right away if you have suicidal thoughts or want to harm yourself. You can call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. This hotline connects you to a network of local crisis centers that provide free and confidential emotional support. In an emergency, call 911 or your local emergency services number.
Questions to ask your healthcare provider include:
Both adjustment disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are mental health conditions that happen after a traumatic event. The cause of an adjustment disorder is less severe than that which causes PTSD. With PTSD, it’s a severely distressing event that causes symptoms, usually one that may be life-threatening like an accident, sexual assault or military combat. Treatment is available for both conditions.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Life is full of ongoing and unpredictable challenges. Both bad and good experiences can cause excessive stress that leads to adjustment disorders. It helps to have the support of loved ones and healthcare providers who you can lean on when things become too stressful. Therapy and medications can help you get back to feeling like yourself. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it. If you have suicidal thoughts, call for help immediately: 988 (Suicide and Crisis Lifeline). Help is always at your fingertips.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/06/2023.
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