Causes & Effects of Adjustment Disorder

When an individual experiences a normal psychosocial change, but responds with marked distress, he or she may be suffering from adjustment disorder. This mental health condition consists of the manifestation of negative emotional or behavioral symptoms following a life-changing event or circumstance and the symptoms of adjustment disorder typically last up to 6 months following the initial stressor. This disorder can affect children and adults alike and can cause a number of impairments if left untreated.

Examples of events or circumstances that can bring about symptoms of adjustment disorder can include moving to a new place, switching schools, the birth of a new baby, loss of employment, or diagnosis of a medical condition. The maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that occur in response are largely due to the individual’s inability to adjust and cope effectively. What is important to know is that there are effective treatment options available that can assist people in alleviating these symptoms and ensure minimal ongoing distress despite changes that occur in their lives.

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Statistics

Research has concluded that adjustment disorder equally impacts males and females. It has also been estimated that between 5% and 20% of people receiving treatment in an outpatient mental health setting meet criteria for adjustment disorder. Moreover, those who are in inpatient care receive a diagnosis for adjustment disorder around 50% of the time. Lastly, studies on the disorder have determined that children with adjustment disorder often act out when under distress, while adults generally experience more emotional instability.

Causes and Risk Factors for Adjustment Disorder

The specific causes of adjustment disorder can differ from person to person. Most mental health professionals agree that there are genetic, physical, and environmental factors that can help explain the origin of an individual’s disorder. Note the following explanations that are widely-accepted concepts among experts:

Genetic: Despite the fact that adjustment disorder is brought on by an outside stressor, an individual’s genetic makeup is believed to contribute to the development of adjustment disorder. Individuals with a family history of certain mental illnesses, such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, have an increased risk of developing adjustment disorder following a major life change.

Physical: The brain chemistry in people with a family history of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders are known to process and handle stress differently due to changes in certain chemicals within the brain. These changes are known to influence how an individual handles stress and coping, which are two elements that are significantly impaired in those with adjustment disorder.    

Environmental: A chronically stressful environment can often trigger symptoms of adjustment disorder in a person. Furthermore, if there are frequent or extremely impactful life changes that occur, an individual is at an even greater risk of developing symptoms consistent with adjustment disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Loss of employment
  • Suffering the loss of a loved one
  • Moving to a new place
  • Changing schools
  • Experiencing parental divorce
  • Recent adoption of a child
  • Recent diagnosis of a medical condition
  • Preexisting mental illness
  • Being a victim of assault / abuse / neglect
  • Lacking flexibility of emotions
  • Having poor social skills

Signs and Symptoms of Adjustment Disorder

Depending on what triggered the onset of the disorder, the signs and symptoms of adjustment disorder can be vast. Additional factors like a person’s temperament and the amount of support around the person can affect the presentation of symptoms. Symptoms typically begin to occur within three months of the distressing event or circumstance and can include a combination of the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Jitteriness
  • Tearfulness
  • School refusal
  • Social isolation
  • Defiant behaviors
  • Violent behaviors
  • Vandalism
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Substance use
  • Self-harm

Physical symptoms:

  • Disrupted sleep
  • Increased heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Chest pains
  • Muscle tension

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor decision-making
  • Difficulty making plans
  • Memory impairment
  • Inability to concentrate

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Overwhelmed feelings
  • Depressed mood
  • Anxiousness
  • Constant worry
  • Feelings of desperation
  • Decreased pleasure in things once enjoyed
  • Feeling hostile
  • Increased separation anxiety
  • Hopelessness
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Adjustment Disorder

Despite the fact that adjustment disorder’s symptoms can be short-term in nature, potentially lasting up to 6 months, there is a possibility that an individual with the condition will experience continuing effects even after the symptoms have subsided. Examples of these effects can include:

  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Family discord
  • Decrease in quality of interpersonal relationships
  • Unpredictable mood
  • Substance use
  • Development of another mental illness
  • Self-injury
  • Suicidal ideations
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

For many people, medical conditions and another mental illness or illnesses can occur alongside adjustment disorder. Listed are common mental health conditions that affect people with a diagnosis of adjustment disorder:

  • Learning disorders
  • Communication disorders
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Depressive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
24-hour patient services help line: (520) 214-0211 Email Us