Adjustment Disorder Symptoms and Causes

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Adjustment disorder is very common. In fact, experiencing a traumatic event is much more common than most people realize. Large-scale studies have found that most people will experience some kind of traumatic event at some point in their lives. Even more common: enduring stressful life events. Stressful life events may include traumatic events (that is, those that involve life threat and the experience of fear, helplessness and/or horror); however, they also include events that tax our coping resources, such as a divorce or the loss of a job.

Stressful events such as these can be very difficult to cope with and can have a major impact on a person's life. However, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - 4th Edition (DSM-IV), they cannot lead to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Instead, they can lead to something called adjustment disorder.

This is not surprising given that everyone is going to experience some kind of stressful event at some point in their life.


Adjustment disorder is a mental health condition that describes difficulties acclimating or responding to a stressor. It includes the following symptoms:

  1. The development of emotional (for example, distress) or behavioral (for example, avoidance) symptoms as a result of a stressful life event. The symptoms occur within three months from the start of the stressful event.
  2. These symptoms cause distress that is greater than what one might expect to experience in response to the stressful life event. The symptoms interfere with parts of a person's life, such as at work, school, or in relationships.
  3. The symptoms are not the result of another disorder, such as major depression or an anxiety disorder.
  4. The symptoms are not related to bereavement about the loss of a loved one.
  5. Once the stressor has ended, the symptoms go away within six months.

If a person has an adjustment disorder, they may experience depressed and/or anxious mood. They may also experience problems in behaving appropriately. For example, a person with adjustment disorder may increase their alcohol consumption as a way of trying to cope with the stressor.


The exact cause of adjustment disorder is not known. Like other mental disorders, the cause is probably multifaceted and may involve genetics, your life experiences, your temperament and even changes in the natural chemicals in the brain.

How to Better Cope

Even though stressful events and adjustment disorder are common, there are things you can do to help you better cope with these events and reduce your chances of developing adjustment disorder. For example, seeking out social support and problem-solving healthy ways of getting through a stressful life event. 

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Article Sources

  • American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition - Text Revision. Washington DC: Author.
  • Mayo Clinic. Adjustment Disorders.
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