Signs & Symptoms of Adjustment Disorder

Everyone experiences adjustment disorder differently. Understanding the signs, symptoms, and effects of adjustment disorder is a key component of starting the recovery journey.

Understanding Adjustment Disorder

Learn about adjustment disorder

Adjustment disorder is a mental illness that can affect people of any age. This disorder occurs when individuals go through a major life change, or experience a major life event, and respond with marked distress as a result. When such events or changes occur, the maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that result for these individuals are believed to be due largely in part to their inability to cope effectively. Fortunately, when proper treatment is received for adjustment disorder, coping skills can be developed and enhanced, allowing these individuals to find relief from their symptoms.


Adjustment disorder statistics

According to the American Psychiatric Association, adjustment disorders are quite common, yet the prevalence can vary depending on the populations studied, as well as the assessment methods that are used. For individuals receiving treatment in outpatient settings, the principal diagnosis of this disorder is between 5% and 20%. In hospital settings, however, adjustment disorder is often the most common diagnosis, frequently affecting 50% of patients.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for adjustment disorder

The causes and risk factors that have been attributed to the development of adjustment disorder are believed to be a combination of varying components, of which include:

Genetic: Although adjustment disorder is the result of an outside stressor that brings about immense distress for an individual, that individual’s genetic composition is believed to play a role as well. Research has shown that people who have a family history of mental illness, especially anxiety disorders, are at an increased risk of developing adjustment disorder after going through a major life change.

Physical: People who struggle with, or who have family members who struggle with, anxiety disorders are believed to have differences in their brain chemistry that plays a role in how they process and handle stressful situations. Such structural differences can influence how a person copes with major changes, potentially leading to the onset of adjustment disorder when that coping skill is lacking.

Environmental: Environmental influences are believed to have the greatest impact on whether or not a person will develop symptoms of adjustment disorder because the onset of this illness is, as was previously mentioned, directly related to the way in which a person deals with a major life change or excessively stressful event. Individuals who exist in a chronically stressful environment may have a higher chance of developing this illness, as are individuals who go through frequent and impactful life changes.

Risk Factors:

  • Suffering the loss of a loved one
  • Moving to a new place
  • Loss of employment
  • Being diagnosed with a chronic medical condition
  • Suffering from a preexisting mental illness
  • Having a family history of mental illness, especially anxiety disorders
  • Lacking appropriate coping skills
  • Being the victim of abuse and/or neglect
  • Being subjected to repeated and significant life changes

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of adjustment disorder

The signs and symptoms that are indicative of the presence of adjustment disorder will vary from person to person, but may include combinations of the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Social isolation
  • Being overly fearful
  • Jitteriness
  • Acting out in aggressive behaviors
  • Engaging in risky, impulsive behaviors
  • Substance use and abuse
  • No longer participating in activities one once enjoyed
  • Participating in self-harming behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Chronic headaches
  • Pervasive stomachaches
  • Chest pains
  • Muscle tension

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Disturbances in one’s ability to concentrate
  • Memory impairment
  • Lacking proper decision-making skills
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Paranoia

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Emotional instability
  • Depressed mood
  • Intense feelings of anxiety
  • Chronic, overwhelming feelings of worry
  • Feelings of desperation
  • Increased separation anxiety
  • Feelings of hostility
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Decreased ability to experience pleasure


Effects of adjustment disorder

In the majority of cases, the symptoms of adjustment disorder are short-term in nature when compared to the symptoms of other mental illnesses. Despite this fact, there is the potential for individuals to experience continuing adverse effects even after the symptoms have subsided. This is especially true when treatment has not been received. Examples of such effects may include:

  • Poor occupational performance
  • Familial discord
  • Decrease in quantity and quality of interpersonal relationships
  • Abuse of, and subsequent addiction to, drugs and/or alcohol
  • Onset of symptoms of another mental illness or illnesses
  • Ongoing self-injury
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

Adjustment disorder and co-occurring disorders

Many individuals suffering from adjustment disorder will also experience the onset of symptoms indicative of the presence of another mental illness or illnesses. Examples of conditions that have been known to occur alongside adjustment disorder include:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Learning disorders
  • Communication disorders