Adjustment Disorders

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.

Adjustment disorder

Last reviewed: February 14, 2010.

Adjustment disorder is an emotional and behavioral reaction that develops within 3 months of a life stress, and which is stronger or greater than what would be expected for the type of event that occurred.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Adults often develop adjustment disorder due to marital or financial problems.

In adolescents, common stressors include:

  • Family conflict
  • School problems
  • Sexuality issues

Other stressors for people of any age include:

  • Death of a loved one
  • General life changes
  • Unexpected catastrophes

There is no way to predict which people who are affected by the same stress are likely to develop adjustment disorder. Financial conditions, social support, and career and recreational opportunities can influence how well a person reacts to stress. A person’s susceptibility to stress may be influenced by factors such as:

  • Coping strategies
  • Intelligence
  • Flexibility
  • Genetic factors
  • Social skills


For a diagnosis of adjustment disorder, a person’s symptoms must be severe enough to affect his or her work or social life. Some of the symptoms include:

Symptoms of adjustment disorder typically begin within 3 months of the stressors, and usually do not last longer than 6 months, unless the stressors continues to be present (such as an illness or living in a dangerous neighborhood).

On occasion, symptoms can be severe and the person may have thoughts of suicide or make a suicide attempt.

Signs and tests

The following criteria need to be met to establish a diagnosis:

  • The symptoms clearly follow stressors
  • The symptoms are more severe than would be expected
  • There do not appear to be other underlying disorders
  • The symptoms are not part of normal grieving for the death of a loved one


The main goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms and help the person return to a similar level of functioning as before the stressful event occurred.

Individual therapy can help the person:

  • Get support
  • Identify his or her abnormal responses to stressors
  • Maximize the use of his or her strengths

Most mental health professionals recommend some type of talk therapy to help the person identify or learn different responses to the stressors in their life. Types of therapy may include:

  • Behavior therapy
  • Individual psychotherapy
  • Family therapy
  • Self-help groups

When medications are used, they are usually in addition to other forms of treatment. Depending on the symptoms, these may include:

  • Anti-anxiety medicines
  • Antidepressant medicines
  • Antipsychotic medicines (rarely)
  • Stimulants (for patients who are very withdrawn)

Expectations (prognosis)

Adjustment disorders usually get better quickly without any remaining symptoms.

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you develop symptoms of adjustment disorder.


There is no known way to prevent this disorder. Strong support from friends and family can help.


  1. Powell AD. Grief, Bereavement, and adjustment disorders. In: Stern TA, Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, Biederman J, Rauch SL, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2008:chap 38.
Review Date: 2/14/2010.Reviewed by: Fred K. Berger, MD, Addiction and Forensic Psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
Logo of A.D.A.M.



Copyright© 2011, A.D.A.M., Inc.


Often, the recommended treatment for adjustment disorder is psychotherapy. The goal of psychotherapy is symptom relief and behavior change. Anxiety may be presented as “a signal from the body” that something in the patient’s life needs to change. Treatment allows the patient to put his or her distress or rage into words rather than into destructive actions. Counseling, psychotherapy, crisis intervention, family therapy, and group treatment are often used to encourage the verbalization of fears, anxiety, rage, helplessness, and hopelessness. Sometimes small doses of antidepressants and anxiolytics are also used. In patients with severe life stresses and a significant anxious component, benzodiazepines are used, although non-addictive alternatives have been recommended for patients with current or past heavy alcohol use, because of the greater risk of dependence. Tianeptine, alprazolam, and mianserin were found to be equally effective in patients with AD with anxiety.

Adjustment disorder link to suicide

Suicidal behavior is prominent among AD patients of all ages and up to one fifth of adolescent suicide victims may have an adjustment disorder. Bronish and Hecht (1989) found that 70% of a series of patients with AD attempted suicide immediately before their index admission and they remitted faster than a comparison group with major depression.[5] Asnis et al. (1993) found that AD patients report persistent ideation or suicide attempts less frequently than those diagnosed with major depression.[6]

Dr. Zen Lewis has over 20 years experience in psychotherapy, counseling, education and public speaking. Dr. Zen’s Psychotherapy Services offices for Therapy Services are located in Los Angeles and Burbank, CA and various locations in South Florida. 

Please click here for Dr. Zen’s current Educational Videos.

Please visit this site regularly for more information and updates.

Blessings to you.

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Youtube