Causes, Symptoms & Effects of Adjustment

Changing schools, moving to a different city, or the addition of another child to the family can bring about stress. Most people are able to adjust to these changes within a few months. However, some individuals continue to feel depressed and have a hard time coping with the change, which may suggest the presence of an adjustment disorder. An adjustment disorder is a type of stress-related mental illness. It is a short-term emotional or behavioral reaction to a known stressful event or change in an adolescent’s life that is considered an unhealthy, maladaptive, or unexpected response. In order to be diagnosed with this disorder, the response must occur within three months of the identified stressful change or event in a teen’s life and tend to resolve within six months following the event.

Adjustment disorder, sometimes called “situational depression,” often causes children to be fearful, hopeless, and lose interest in school or friends. However, unlike major depression, adjustment disorder is triggered by an external stimuli and remits once the child has processed and adapted to the situation.

While some stressful events can resolve on their own and the symptoms of the disorder dissipate over time, there are a number of repeated stressful situations that cannot be avoided and remain a part of a teen’s life. Many people tend to believe that adjustment disorder is somehow less serious than other mental health problems simply because it is a stress-related condition. Just like other mental health disorders, adjustment disorders can impact every facet of a growing teen’s life, leaving them feeling overwhelmed, stressed, hopeless, and unable to complete their normal daily activities. Early recognition and treatment are important for those who have adjustment disorder so they can learn to cope with stress, lifestyle changes, and develop the skills necessary to process their emotions.

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Adjustment disorders are very common among children and adolescents, occurring with equal frequency among boys and girls. Adjustment disorders occur in all cultures, however cultural influences may impact the type of stressor and symptoms experienced. Children and teens of all ages experience adjustment disorder, however, it’s thought that the symptoms of the disorder will vary between children and adults. Adults may experience a more emotional reaction while children and adolescents often act out.

Causes of Adjustment Disorder

Anyone, no matter the age, gender, race, or ethnicity, can be affected by an adjustment disorder. However, researchers have yet to determine exactly what causes this disorder. It is likely the combination of genetics, life experiences, temperament, and changes in the natural chemicals in the brain that cause adjustment problems. Factors that may increase a child or adolescent’s development of adjustment disorder include:

  • Being diagnosed with a serious illness
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Death of a loved one
  • Problems in school
  • Surviving a disaster
  • Moving to a new city
  • General inability to cope with change
  • Other mental health problems
  • Exposure to violence

Symptoms of Adjustment Disorder

The symptoms of adjustment disorder will vary from one individual to the next and the symptoms one experiences may be different in another. However, all individuals with this disorder experience symptoms within three months of a stressful event and the reaction to that stressor causes significant impairment in social, occupational, or educational functioning. Signs and symptoms of adjustment disorder may affect how you feel and think about yourself and life. Some of the symptoms of adjustment disorder may include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Tearfulness
  • Engaging in self-destructive behaviors
  • Withdrawing from friends and previously-enjoyed activities
  • Increasing amounts of time spent alone
  • Increased absences from school
  • Using drugs or alcohol
  • Skipping school
  • Fighting
  • Acting out

Physical Symptoms:

  • Muscle tension
  • Aches and pains
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Changes in appetite
  • Different sleep patterns
  • Heart palpitations
  • Fatigue, lack of energy

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Inability to focus on particular tasks
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Depressed mood
  • Worrying
  • Jitteriness
  • Fear of separation from important figures in child’s life
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Mood swings
  • Nervousness
  • Aggressive outbursts
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Suicidal thoughts
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

While most cases of adjustment disorder resolve on their own within six months of the event, some children and adolescents could experience long-lasting effects that have been caused by this disorder. These long-term effects may include:

  • Insomnia
  • Social isolation and withdrawal
  • Marital or family conflicts
  • Decreased capacity to work
  • Substance abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Schizophrenia
  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Behavioral changes
  • Mood swings
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-occurring Disorders

Adjustment disorder can accompany almost any mental disorder or medical disorder. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders may include:

  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Many medical conditions
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