What is an adjustment disorder and how do you treat it?

What is an adjustment disorder and how do you treat it?

Abnormal psychological or behavioral symptoms that develop in response to a drastic life-change such as a severe medical condition, a death in the family or a divorce from a spouse could be diagnosed as an adjustment disorder. According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5th Edition, an adjustment disorder (AD) is a stress related illness in which a person isn’t able to emotionally adjust to a change in life for up to six months.

Change is difficult, and everybody has to take time to adjust to alterations in life. The amount of time it takes for a person to adjust to drastic change truly depends on the individual. According to the DSM-5, the effect in mood is stated as “marked distress that is in excess of what would be expected from exposure to the stressor” (DSM-5).

Adjustment disorder signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of having an adjustment disorder are very similar to those of depression and anxiety. Adjustment disorders can lead to noticeable behavioral changes such as truancy, reckless driving, aggressive outbursts, promiscuity and shoplifting. Studies show that guilt felt after such behavior will usually lead to more of the same behavior (DSM-5).

Adjustment disorder conditions are strongly associated with chronic or acute stress, as well as other conditions such as anxiety or depression. Maladaptive behavior and aggressive reactions resulting from a person’s response to external stimuli are generally characteristics of an adjustment disorder. Those with the disorder also exhibit significant impairment in social, occupational or educational environments (NIMH 2014).

Additionally, suicidal ideation is a fairly common symptom experienced by people with adjustment disorders and can lead to attempts at committing suicide or prolonged thoughts about suicide. Studies show that adjustment disorders were more common among people hospitalized for attempted suicide, than among youth with no history of suicidal ideation (Godston; Daniel; Reboussin; Kelley; Frazier 1998).

Adjustment disorders and other mental conditions

The symptoms of adjustment disorders are fairly similar to those of depression and anxiety. This can in large part be due to the fact that different types of adjustment disorders exhibit specific symptoms based on whether it is with depressed mood, anxiety, a mix of both or disturbance of conduct. For example, a person dealing with an adjustment disorder with depressed mood may exhibit bouts of crying, and sadness. Similarly, a person with an adjustment disorder with anxiety will display feelings of apprehension, nervousness, worry and severe negativity (DSM-5).

Treating an adjustment disorder

Psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be beneficial to a person with an adjustment disorder. CBT is based on cognitive theory that states one’s thoughts determine his or her feelings, which also determine behaviors. A prolonged adjustment period may indicate a need to analyze and change any negative thoughts, memories or feelings. Any other diagnosable disorders that are occurring simultaneously with the adjustment disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder or depression, should also be addressed and treated.

When a person is suffering and unable to find the happiness or satisfaction he or she experienced in life before the traumatic event or life change, he or she would benefit from working with a therapist to set out an action plan of what changes he or she would like to see in how he or she thinks, feels and acts, as well as how to go about making those changes.

When working with a therapist utilizing CBT, goal oriented discussion and homework assignments help the patient determine how and when people have certain negative thoughts, how it affects their feelings and exactly how they would like to feel differently. With the help of individual therapy as well as group therapy, people can effectively start to meet their goals of feeling a little more like their normal selves.

If you or a loved one would like more information on obtaining treatment for an adjustment disorder, you can call the Mental Health Helpline at 855-653-8178.

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