Adjustment disorders symptoms vary from person to person. The symptoms you have may be different from those of someone else with an adjustment disorder. But for everyone, symptoms of an adjustment disorder begin within three months of a stressful event in your life.
Emotional symptoms of adjustment disorders
Signs and symptoms of adjustment disorder may affect how you feel and think about yourself or life, including:
- Lack of enjoyment
- Crying spells
- Anxiety, which may include separation anxiety
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Thoughts of suicide
Behavioral symptoms of adjustment disorders
Signs and symptoms of adjustment disorder may affect your actions or behavior, such as:
- Reckless driving
- Ignoring bills
- Avoiding family or friends
- Performing poorly in school or at work
- Skipping school
- Vandalizing property
Length of symptoms
How long you have symptoms of an adjustment disorder also can vary:
- 6 months or less (acute). In these cases, symptoms should ease once the stressor is removed. Brief professional treatment may help symptoms disappear.
- More than 6 months (chronic). In these cases, symptoms continue to bother you and disrupt your life. Professional treatment may help symptoms improve and prevent the condition from continuing to get worse.
When to see a doctor
Sometimes the stressful change in your life goes away, and your symptoms of adjustment disorder get better because the stress has eased. But often, 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'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 suicidal thoughts
If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, get help right away. Consider talking to your doctor, nurse, a mental health professional, a trusted family member or friend, or your faith leader.
If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Or call a suicide hot line number. In the United States, you can call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (toll-free) to talk with a trained counselor.
Researchers are still trying to figure out what causes adjustment disorders. As with other mental disorders, the cause is likely complex and may involve genetics, your life experiences, your temperament and even changes in the natural chemicals in the brain.
Although the cause of adjustment disorders is unknown, some things make you more likely to have an adjustment disorder. Among children and teenagers, both boys and girls have about the same chance of having adjustment disorders. Among adults, women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with adjustment disorders.
One or more stressful life events may put you at risk of developing an adjustment disorder. It may involve almost any type of stressful event in your life. Both positive and negative events can cause extreme stress. Some common examples include:
- Being diagnosed with a serious illness
- Problems in school
- Divorce or relationship breakup
- Job loss
- Having a baby
- Financial problems
- Physical assault
- Surviving a disaster
- Death of a loved one
- Going away to school
In some cases, people who face an ongoing stressful situation — such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood — can reach a breaking point and develop an adjustment disorder.
Your life experiences
If you generally don't cope well with change or you don't have a strong support system, you may be more likely to have an extreme reaction to a stressful event.
Your risk of an adjustment disorder may be higher if you experienced stress in early childhood. Overprotective or abusive parenting, family disruptions, and frequent moves early in life may make you feel like you're unable to control events in your life. When difficulties then arise, you may have trouble coping.
Other risk factors may include:
- Other mental health problems
- Exposure to wars or violence
- Difficult life circumstances
Most adults with adjustment disorder get better within six months and don't have long-term complications. However, people who also have another mental health disorder, a substance abuse problem or a chronic adjustment disorder are more likely to have long-term mental health problems, which may include:
- Alcohol and drug addiction
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior
Compared with adults, teenagers with adjustment disorder — especially chronic adjustment disorder marked by behavioral problems — are at significantly increased risk of long-term problems. In addition to depression, substance abuse and suicidal behavior, teenagers with adjustment disorder are at risk of developing psychiatric disorders such as:
- Bipolar disorder
- Antisocial personality disorder
There are no guaranteed ways to prevent adjustment disorder. But developing healthy coping skills and learning to be resilient may help you during times of high stress. Resilience is the ability to adapt well to stress, adversity, trauma or tragedy. Some of the ways you can improve your resilience are:
- Having a good support network
- Seeking out humor or laughter
- Living a healthy lifestyle
- Learning how to think positively about yourself
If you know that a stressful situation is coming up — such as a move or retirement — call on your inner strength in advance. Remind yourself that you can get through it. In addition, consider checking in with your doctor or mental health provider to review healthy ways to manage your stress.