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What is an Adjustment Disorder? - Criteria, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Jennifer Kinder
In this lesson you will learn about Adjustment Disorder and its criteria, illustrated with some real life symptom examples. You'll also learn about various treatments for Adjustment Disorder.

Adjustment Disorder: Definition

Jessie was home alone one night when a burglar broke into her home and stole several items of value. She hid in an upstairs closet and was not detected. When the burglar left the house, Jessie came out of hiding, called the police, and the burglar was apprehended. Since this incident, which happened two weeks ago, she is struggling to sleep at night and feel safe in her house.

The above scenario is an example of a life stressor and the resulting mental health symptoms which are typical of Adjustment Disorder.

In this lesson you will learn what Adjustment Disorder is, it's criteria/symptoms, and some treatment options to reduce symptoms.

Adjustment Disorder is categorized as an 'Anxiety Disorder' in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The DSM is the diagnostic book for mental health conditions which lists each condition along with each condition's symptoms. Adjustment Disorder is considered an Anxiety Disorder because its main symptoms involve anxiety.

Adjustment Disorder: Criteria and Symptoms

Adjustment Disorder is characterized by a person's inability to cope with a recent and stressful life event. Stressful life events can vary widely between individuals who have this disorder. Possibly stressful life events are things such as the loss of a home or a new cancer diagnosis or returning home from military service.

The following are the specific diagnostic criteria of Adjustment Disorder, along with possible symptoms:

  • Emotional or behavioral symptoms

An individual with Adjustment Disorder will develop emotional or behavioral symptoms in response to a stressful life event. These symptoms must have begun within three months of the stressful life event, cause significant distress beyond what would be expected, and cause impairment. The individual's impairment must be evident in important life areas such as with relationships, work, or school.

Example: Judy received a diagnosis of breast cancer two months ago. Her doctors have given her a very hopeful diagnosis. However, despite this, she has felt so depressed that she has called into work all week and won't answer her phone when her closest friends call.

  • Not another disorder

In order to be diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder, the symptoms can't be attributed to another disorder, such as PTSD or Major Depressive Disorder. If the individual's symptoms are more consistent with another disorder, even if symptoms overlap, they would be diagnosed with that other disorder.

Example: Since Bruce returned from his deployment six months ago, he is struggling to adjust to civilian life. His sleep is poor due to nightmares. He feels unsafe even in his own home, and has several weapons placed strategically throughout the house to react to any danger. He often feels guilty for decisions made during his deployment, feels numb, and is struggling with feeling anger daily. He misses who he was prior to his deployment and seeks out mental health treatment. The psychologist he sees diagnosis him with PTSD, instead of Adjustment Disorder due to the intensity, scope, and duration of his symptoms.

  • Not normal bereavement

When someone experiences a significant loss, there is an expected course for bereavement. Bereavement is the term used to describe grief after a significant loss. Bereavement generally includes some social, physical, or emotional symptoms which accompany adjusting to a significant loss. When an individual's symptoms are more consistent with bereavement, then Adjustment Disorder is not diagnosed, despite the individual having difficulties adjusting to a stressor.

Example: Frank lost his wife of 40 years to cancer two months ago. Since then he has difficulties adjusting to life without her. He often feels sad and lonely but he is pushing himself to stay surrounded by loving family members and friends. He often shares funny and sweet memories with their children, as they all laugh in remembrance of her. He knows he will never find another woman like her, but he is open to slowly finding his path without her. Frank's pastor gives him hope when he explains that Frank's feelings are those of bereavement, and over time he will heal.

  • Symptoms don't last longer than 6 months

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