Table of Contents

Definition of Adjustment Disorder

Adjustment Disorder is a mental health condition characterized by a significant emotional or behavioral reaction to an identifiable stressor or stressors occurring within three months of the onset of the stressor(s). The reaction is disproportionate or exceeds what would be expected considering the nature of the stressor and the individual’s cultural or social context.

Key features of Adjustment Disorder include:

  • Stressor Identification: There needs to be a specific identifiable stressor or stressors, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce, moving, health issues, financial problems, etc.
  • Symptoms and Reaction: The emotional or behavioral reaction to the stressor is excessive or out of proportion. It may manifest as feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, worry, disturbance in conduct, or a combination of symptoms causing significant distress.
  • Time Frame: The reaction occurs within three months of the onset of the stressor and usually doesn’t last for more than six months after the stressor ends. If the stressor persists, the symptoms might also persist.

Adjustment Disorder is different from other mental health disorders in that its symptoms are directly linked to a specific stressor, and the symptoms typically lessen or resolve once the stressor has been removed or the individual has adapted to it. It’s important to note that while Adjustment Disorder can be distressing and disruptive, it’s often transient and tends to improve with time, support, and coping strategies. However, in some cases, it may require professional intervention, therapy, or support to manage symptoms effectively.

This diagnosis is typically made by mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, or licensed therapists, based on a thorough evaluation of the individual’s symptoms, the stressor, and their impact on daily functioning.

Adjustment Disorder

History of Adjustment Disorder

The concept of Adjustment Disorder has evolved over time within the field of psychiatry and mental health.

  • Before its formal recognition in classification systems like the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the idea that certain psychological reactions were tied to specific stressors was acknowledged, but it wasn’t formally codified into a distinct diagnostic category.
  • The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) included the first official classification of Adjustment Disorder in the third edition, known as DSM-III, published in 1980. At that time, it was referred to as “Transient Situational Disturbance.” The diagnostic criteria were revised in subsequent editions, such as DSM-III-R (Revised) and DSM-IV, before being formally termed “Adjustment Disorder” in DSM-IV, which was published in 1994.
  • DSM-IV outlined specific criteria for diagnosing Adjustment Disorder, emphasizing the development of emotional or behavioral symptoms in response to identifiable stressors. These criteria were refined further in DSM-5, published in 2013, where subtypes of Adjustment Disorder were introduced based on the nature of symptoms, such as with depressed mood, with anxiety, with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, with disturbance of conduct, and unspecified.
  • The evolution of Adjustment Disorder within diagnostic manuals reflects a deeper understanding of the relationship between stressors and an individual’s psychological response, acknowledging that significant distress or impairment can result from certain stressors even if the reaction may not meet the criteria for other specific mental health disorders.
  • Over time, clinicians and researchers have continued to refine their understanding of Adjustment Disorder, recognizing its clinical significance, its impact on individuals’ lives, and the importance of appropriate interventions and support to manage symptoms effectively.

Explanation of Adjustment Disorder

Adjustment Disorder is a mental health condition characterized by emotional or behavioral symptoms that occur in response to a significant stressor or multiple stressors. These symptoms typically develop within three months after the onset of the stressor and can cause significant distress or impairment in various areas of an individual’s life.

Key points about Adjustment Disorder include:

  • Identifiable Stressor: The symptoms of Adjustment Disorder are linked to specific stressors, such as the death of a loved one, relationship problems, job loss, financial difficulties, health issues, or major life changes like relocation.
  • Symptoms and Manifestation: The symptoms vary widely and may include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, worry, irritability, difficulty concentrating, changes in behavior, or disturbances in social or occupational functioning.
  • Disproportionate Reaction: The reaction to the stressor is considered excessive or out of proportion to what would be expected given the nature of the stressor and the individual’s cultural or social background.
  • Duration: The symptoms generally last no longer than six months after the stressor has ended or once the individual has adapted to the stressor.
  • Impact: The symptoms of Adjustment Disorder can significantly affect an individual’s ability to function in their daily life, causing problems in relationships, work, or other areas.

Adjustment Disorder is distinct from other mental health disorders in that its symptoms are directly tied to specific stressors and are usually temporary. However, if left unaddressed, the symptoms might persist or worsen, impacting the person’s overall well-being.

It’s important to seek professional help if you or someone you know is experiencing significant distress or impairment due to a stressful event or situation, as early intervention and support can assist in managing symptoms and improving overall well-being.

DSM-5 Criteria of Adjustment Disorder

The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) outlines specific criteria for diagnosing Adjustment Disorder. To receive a diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder, the following criteria must be met:

A. The development of emotional or behavioral symptoms in response to an identifiable stressor(s) occurring within three months of the onset of the stressor(s).

B. The symptoms or behaviors are clinically significant, as evidenced by one or both of the following:

Marked distress that is out of proportion to the severity or intensity of the stressor, or

Significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

C. The stress-related disturbance does not meet the criteria for another mental disorder and is not merely an exacerbation of a pre-existing mental disorder.

D. The symptoms do not represent normal bereavement (i.e., after the death of a loved one, the symptoms persist for longer than expected or are characterized by marked functional impairment, morbid preoccupation with worthlessness, suicidal ideation, psychotic symptoms, or psychomotor retardation).

E. Once the stressor or its consequences have terminated, the symptoms do not persist for more than an additional six months.

F. The symptoms are not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or another medical condition (e.g., hypothyroidism).

In addition to these general criteria, the DSM-5 identifies subtypes of Adjustment Disorder based on the predominant symptoms:

  • with Depressed Mood
  • with Anxiety
  • with Mixed Anxiety and Depressed Mood
  • with Disturbance of Conduct
  • with Mixed Disturbance of Emotions and Conduct
  • Unspecified Adjustment Disorder (when symptoms do not fit into specific subtypes)

A qualified mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist, typically evaluates an individual’s symptoms and determines if they meet the criteria for Adjustment Disorder based on a thorough assessment of the person’s history and current symptoms in relation to the identified stressor(s).

Etiology of Adjustment Disorder

The exact causes or etiology of Adjustment Disorder involve a complex interplay of various factors, including environmental, psychological, and individual elements. While the precise cause of Adjustment Disorder isn’t fully understood, several contributing factors may lead to its development:

Stressful Life Events:

Adjustment Disorder is closely tied to specific stressors. It can arise in response to various life stressors, such as the death of a loved one, relationship difficulties, financial problems, work-related stress, health issues, major life changes, or trauma. These stressors can overwhelm an individual’s coping mechanisms, leading to the development of symptoms.

Vulnerability Factors:

Certain predisposing factors may increase an individual’s susceptibility to developing Adjustment Disorder. These factors might include a lack of adequate coping skills, poor social support, prior history of mental health issues, personality traits, childhood experiences, or a family history of mental health problems.

Biopsychosocial Factors:

Biological factors, such as genetic predisposition or alterations in brain chemistry, might contribute to an individual’s vulnerability to stress. Psychological factors, including personality traits, cognitive styles, and coping strategies, can also play a role. Moreover, social factors such as social support, cultural background, socioeconomic status, and environmental stressors can influence the development and course of Adjustment Disorder.

Lack of Adaptive Coping:

In some cases, individuals facing stressful situations might lack effective coping strategies to deal with the stressors they encounter. This inability to adapt or cope with the stressor in a healthy manner can lead to the development of Adjustment Disorder symptoms.

Protective Factors:

Conversely, certain protective factors, such as strong social support networks, healthy coping skills, resilience, and access to mental health resources, can mitigate the impact of stressors and reduce the likelihood of developing Adjustment Disorder.

Psychosocial Context:

 The way individuals interpret and perceive stressors, as well as the meaning they attach to them, can significantly influence the development and severity of Adjustment Disorder. Cultural, familial, and societal beliefs and expectations also contribute to how stressors are perceived and managed.

Understanding the interplay between these factors can assist mental health professionals in providing appropriate support and interventions for individuals experiencing Adjustment Disorder, focusing on coping strategies, stress management techniques, and addressing the underlying stressors to facilitate recovery and resilience.

Theories related to Adjustment Disorder

Adjustment Disorder is a complex mental health condition influenced by various theoretical perspectives that attempt to explain its development, manifestation, and treatment approaches. Several theoretical frameworks contribute to our understanding of Adjustment Disorder:

Stress and Coping Theory:

This theory posits that stress results from an imbalance between environmental demands (stressors) and an individual’s perceived resources and coping abilities. Adjustment Disorder can occur when an individual’s coping mechanisms are overwhelmed by stressors, leading to maladaptive emotional or behavioral responses.

Transactional Model of Stress and Coping:

Proposed by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman, this model emphasizes the dynamic nature of stress. It suggests that stress arises from the interaction between the individual and the environment. Adjustment Disorder may arise when an individual perceives a stressor as threatening and lacks adequate coping strategies to manage it effectively.

Biopsychosocial Model:

This model considers biological, psychological, and social factors in understanding mental health disorders. Adjustment Disorder can be viewed as a result of an individual’s unique biological vulnerabilities, psychological responses, and social context interacting with specific stressors.

Vulnerability-Stress Model:

This model suggests that mental health disorders, including Adjustment Disorder, result from the interplay between an individual’s vulnerabilities or predispositions (genetic, psychological, or biological) and environmental stressors. The presence of stressors can trigger or exacerbate symptoms in those with pre-existing vulnerabilities.

Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective:

This perspective focuses on the role of cognitions, thoughts, and behaviors in the development and maintenance of mental health disorders. In Adjustment Disorder, maladaptive thoughts or coping strategies in response to stressors can contribute to the persistence or exacerbation of symptoms.

Ecological Systems Theory:

Developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, this theory emphasizes the influence of various environmental systems (microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem) on an individual’s development. Adjustment Disorder might result from disruptions or stressors within these systems, such as family, school, work, or community.

Understanding these theoretical frameworks aids clinicians and researchers in developing interventions and treatments tailored to individuals experiencing Adjustment Disorder. Therapeutic approaches often focus on enhancing coping skills, addressing maladaptive thought patterns, providing social support, and helping individuals adapt more effectively to stressors to alleviate symptoms and improve well-being.

Risk factors of Adjustment Disorder

Adjustment Disorder can arise in response to various stressors, and several risk factors can increase an individual’s susceptibility to developing this condition. Some of the key risk factors associated with Adjustment Disorder include:

Stressful Life Events:

Exposure to significant life stressors such as the death of a loved one, relationship problems, divorce, job loss, financial difficulties, health issues, trauma, natural disasters, or major life changes can increase the risk of developing Adjustment Disorder.

Lack of Social Support:

Limited social networks, lack of close relationships, or inadequate support from family, friends, or community can contribute to an increased risk of experiencing Adjustment Disorder. Adequate social support can act as a protective factor against the negative impact of stressors.

Limited Coping Skills:

Inadequate coping strategies or poor adaptive mechanisms to manage stressors can heighten the risk of developing Adjustment Disorder. Individuals with limited coping skills might struggle to effectively deal with challenging situations, leading to emotional distress or behavioral difficulties.

Previous Mental Health Conditions:

Individuals with a history of mental health issues or prior episodes of Adjustment Disorder or other psychiatric disorders might be more susceptible to developing Adjustment Disorder when faced with new stressors.

Personality Traits:

Certain personality traits or characteristics, such as high neuroticism, pessimism, low resilience, perfectionism, or difficulty in managing change, might increase vulnerability to experiencing Adjustment Disorder in response to stressful events.

Childhood Adversities:

Traumatic experiences or adverse events during childhood, such as abuse, neglect, or dysfunctional family environments, can contribute to difficulties in coping with stressors later in life, increasing the risk of Adjustment Disorder.

Socioeconomic Factors:

Financial hardship, low socioeconomic status, limited access to resources or healthcare, unstable living conditions, or employment-related stress can elevate the risk of developing Adjustment Disorder.

Chronic Illness or Medical Conditions:

Chronic health conditions or severe illnesses that cause significant disruption in daily life, impair functioning, or lead to ongoing stressors can increase the likelihood of experiencing Adjustment Disorder.

It’s essential to recognize that while these factors can contribute to an increased risk, they don’t necessarily guarantee the development of Adjustment Disorder. Individuals might respond differently to stressors based on their resilience, coping strategies, and available support systems. Early recognition of risk factors and timely intervention can help mitigate the impact of stressors and reduce the likelihood of Adjustment Disorder.

Treatment for Adjustment Disorder

The treatment for Adjustment Disorder typically involves psychotherapeutic interventions aimed at helping individuals cope with the stressor(s) causing distress and managing their emotional or behavioral symptoms. Treatment approaches often focus on providing support, improving coping skills, and addressing the underlying stressors. Here are some common treatment options:

Psychotherapy (Counseling or Talk Therapy):

Different types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), supportive therapy, problem-solving therapy, or interpersonal therapy, can be effective. These therapies help individuals explore their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to the stressor and develop healthier coping strategies.

Stress Management Techniques:

Therapists often teach relaxation techniques, mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and stress reduction strategies to help individuals manage their stress levels more effectively.

Support Groups:

Participation in support groups or group therapy sessions with individuals experiencing similar challenges can provide a sense of belonging, validation, and shared coping strategies.

Family or Couples Therapy:

In cases where family or relationship issues contribute to the stressor, involving family members or partners in therapy can help improve communication, resolve conflicts, and enhance support systems.


In some instances, if symptoms are severe or accompanied by anxiety or depression, a doctor or psychiatrist might prescribe medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, to alleviate symptoms. However, medication is generally not the first-line treatment for Adjustment Disorder and is often used in conjunction with therapy.

Stress Reduction and Lifestyle Changes:

Encouraging healthy lifestyle modifications, such as regular exercise, adequate sleep, a balanced diet, and avoiding substances like alcohol or drugs, can positively impact an individual’s ability to cope with stressors.

Problem-Solving Skills Training:

Learning problem-solving techniques and decision-making strategies can assist individuals in addressing the stressors causing difficulties more effectively.


Providing information and education about Adjustment Disorder, stress management, and the nature of the individual’s symptoms can empower them and their support network to better understand and manage the condition.

The specific treatment plan may vary based on the individual’s unique situation, the nature of the stressor, the severity of symptoms, and personal preferences. Seeking support from mental health professionals, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, or therapists, is crucial for an accurate diagnosis and the development of an effective treatment plan tailored to the individual’s needs. Early intervention and support can significantly improve outcomes and help individuals regain their functional abilities and emotional well-being.

Therapies for Adjustment Disorder

Therapies for Adjustment Disorder primarily focus on providing support, enhancing coping skills, addressing stressors, and managing symptoms. Several types of psychotherapeutic interventions are commonly used to help individuals experiencing Adjustment Disorder. Some effective therapies include:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT):

CBT helps individuals identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with the stressor. It aims to teach coping skills, problem-solving strategies, and techniques to challenge and change unhelpful beliefs, reducing distressing symptoms.

Supportive Therapy:

This form of therapy offers a supportive and empathetic environment where individuals can express their feelings, thoughts, and concerns related to the stressor. It focuses on validation, encouragement, and guidance without necessarily delving deeply into past issues.

Interpersonal Therapy (IPT):

IPT emphasizes improving relationships and social functioning. It helps individuals understand how interpersonal difficulties contribute to their distress and teaches effective communication skills and conflict resolution techniques.

Psychodynamic Therapy:

This therapy explores unconscious conflicts and past experiences that may contribute to current difficulties. It helps individuals gain insight into their emotions and behaviors related to the stressor, facilitating emotional processing and resolution.

Problem-Solving Therapy:

This therapy focuses on developing effective problem-solving skills to address the stressor directly. It involves identifying the problem, generating possible solutions, evaluating their effectiveness, and implementing solutions.

Mindfulness-Based Therapies:

Approaches such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) teach individuals mindfulness and relaxation techniques to manage stress and improve emotional regulation.

Group Therapy or Support Groups:

Participating in a group setting with others experiencing similar challenges provides a sense of belonging, validation, and the opportunity to learn coping strategies and receive support from peers.

The choice of therapy depends on individual needs, preferences, the nature of the stressor, and the severity of symptoms. Often, a combination of therapies or an integrative approach may be most effective in addressing the multifaceted aspects of Adjustment Disorder.

Therapists work collaboratively with individuals to tailor the treatment plan and select the most appropriate therapy or combination of therapies to help manage symptoms, improve coping mechanisms, and enhance resilience in dealing with the stressor causing distress. Seeking guidance from a mental health professional can assist in determining the most suitable therapy for addressing Adjustment Disorder symptoms effectively.

Preventions of Adjustment Disorder

While it’s challenging to completely prevent stress or avoid all stressors in life, several strategies can potentially reduce the risk of developing Adjustment Disorder or mitigate its impact:

Building Resilience:

Developing resilience involves enhancing coping skills, problem-solving abilities, and adaptive strategies to manage stress effectively. Engaging in activities that promote resilience, such as maintaining a support network, practicing mindfulness, and fostering a positive mindset, can help individuals navigate stressors more effectively.

Stress Management Techniques:

Learning and regularly practicing stress reduction techniques, including relaxation exercises, deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or tai chi, can help individuals manage stress and prevent it from becoming overwhelming.

Developing Healthy Coping Strategies:

Encouraging healthy coping mechanisms, such as maintaining a balanced lifestyle, engaging in hobbies or activities that bring joy, seeking social support, and setting realistic goals, can help individuals better cope with challenging situations.

Enhancing Social Support:

Having strong social connections and supportive relationships can act as a buffer against the negative effects of stress. Building and maintaining a network of supportive friends, family, or community connections can provide emotional support during difficult times.

Recognizing Signs of Distress:

Being aware of early signs of distress or mental health concerns and seeking help promptly can prevent symptoms from escalating. Encouraging open communication and reducing stigma around mental health issues can facilitate early intervention.

Work-Life Balance:

Striving for a balance between work, family, personal time, and relaxation is important. Setting boundaries, managing workload, and prioritizing self-care can reduce the risk of chronic stressors leading to Adjustment Disorder.

Seeking Professional Help:

In situations where stressors become overwhelming or persistent, seeking guidance from mental health professionals, counselors, or therapists can provide valuable support, guidance, and tools to manage stress effectively.

It’s important to note that while these strategies can help reduce the likelihood or severity of stress-related problems, it may not always be possible to prevent all stressors or completely avoid the development of Adjustment Disorder. However, employing these preventive measures can contribute to greater resilience and better coping mechanisms when faced with stressors, potentially reducing their impact on mental health and overall well-being.

author avatar