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What is an Adjustment Disorder?

An adjustment disorder is a reaction to a stressor or group of stressors which manifests in the form of behavioral and emotional symptoms. In most cases, adjustment disorder is short lived, usually lasting less than six months. However, recurrent stress can prolong the condition, as might be seen when someone is stressed and restressed before having an opportunity to adapt to the original stress. Adjustment disorder can happen to anyone, but it appears to be more commonly diagnosed in women.

For someone with adjustment disorder, a stressor might be something like a move, a breakup, a new school, a divorce, or a bad report card. The stress may be serious in nature, but it is not life threatening. Severe stressors such as life threatening situations tend to lead to post traumatic stress disorder, rather than adjustment disorder. In response to the stressor, the patient may experience depression, anxiety, and other generalized symptoms which can manifest in the form of unusual emotions or strange behaviors.

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In order to be considered an adjustment disorder, there must be a demonstrable stressor which occurred within three months before the onset of symptoms. It is also possible that a constellation of incidents may have led to the adjustment disorder, in which case it should be possible to identify the interconnected incidents. The patient's depression and anxiety cannot be traced to other causes, such as an underlying chemical imbalance, and the patient is not experiencing generalized symptoms, but rather responding to a specific stressful incident or incidents.

For many patients, adjustment disorder resolves as the patient adapts and copes with the stressor. However, therapy can speed this process, and make the patient feel more comfortable. During therapy, the client can explore emotions, think about the response to the stressor, and talk to the therapist about coping techniques which can be used to manage stress in a healthy way to avoid intense responses in the future.

Receiving therapy for mental health issues can be beneficial. Even if a problem may resolve on its own, a mental health professional can help a patient work through the process, and a professional may also be able to identify risk factors which could complicate recovery or indicate that the situation is actually more complicated. For example, if a child develops an adjustment disorder from going to school, a therapist may uncover information such as reports of bullying or other activities which are complicating the child's mental state.

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