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Adjustment Disorder


Updated October 31, 2012

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Experiencing a traumatic event is much more common than most people realize. In fact, 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. Instead, they can lead to something called Adjustment Disorder.

What is Adjustment Disorder

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 3 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 6 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.

According to the DSM-IV, Adjustment Disorder is fairly common. This is not surprising given that everyone is going to experience some kind of stressful event as some point in their life.

However, 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, problem-solving can be helpful and healthy ways of getting through a stressful life event. However, just because someone experiences a traumatic event does not mean that they will develop posttraumatic stress disorder.


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

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