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Adjustment Disorders

An adjustment disorder is a short-term maladaptive response to a stressor, resulting in the development of emotional and/or behavioural symptoms. These symptoms result in marked distress in excess of what would be expected, as well as significant impairment in functioning.

The stressor, generally, is an event of a serious and unusual nature that an individual, or group of individuals, experiences. However, in other cases, the stressors that cause adjustment disorders may not be extreme events. They may be grossly traumatic but may also be apparently minor, like the loss of a boyfriend/girlfriend, poor school results, or starting National Service. It depends largely on the perception of the person affected. Despite the seemingly trivial nature of the events, the discomfort, distress, turmoil and anguish to the individual are very real.

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Signs and Symptoms

Adjustment disorders may not begin immediately after a stressor occurs. Up to three months may lapse between the occurrence of a stressor and the development of symptoms. The symptoms can vary considerably, manifesting as depressive or anxiety symptoms, and sometimes even both. Physical symptoms are most common in children and the elderly, but may occur in any age group.

The affected person may display the following symptoms:

The symptoms of the disorder usually resolve within six months, although they may last longer if there is a chronic stressor or long-lasting consequences.


There are two main types of treatment for adjustment disorders – psychotherapy and medication. Most people improve after treatment and only need it for a short while.

  • Psychotherapy
    Psychotherapy is usually the treatment of choice for adjustment disorders. The goal is identification of the stressors, symptom relief and behaviour change. Therapy can provide emotional support and can also help people learn why the event affected them so much. As they process how the event resulted in their reaction, they also learn useful coping skills that will help them in the future. Crisis intervention, family and group therapies, cognitive behavioural therapy, and interpersonal psychotherapy have all been shown to be effective.
  • Medication
    In some cases, medication may help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as suicidal thoughts. Antidepressants and short-term sedatives are most often used to treat adjustment disorders. As with therapy, the person may only need medication for a few months.

    The affected individuals and their families should understand that adjustment disorder occurs when a stressor challenges a person’s ability to cope. They should be reassured that stressful events often have emotional and physical effects. Adjustment disorder is time limited, and individuals can expect to recover.

To make an appointment to see a doctor, please call 6389 2200.

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