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Ask Dr. Lowenstein: What is adjustment disorder?

We all experience stressful events in life. And it’s certainly not uncommon to struggle with the changes brought on by these events. But excessive emotional or behavioral responses could signal an adjustment disorder, especially in children and adolescents. For children, this may be triggered by the loss of a pet or birth of a sibling. Adolescents may struggle with school issues or relationships. Adults can also experience adjustment disorders stemming from financial or health problems. In fact, any event that an individual perceives as stressful can lead to an adjustment disorder.

Symptoms to watch for

The symptoms of adjustment disorder can be both physical and emotional:  

  • Trouble sleeping or insomnia
  • Frequent crying
  • Headaches and body aches
  • Lack of appetite, change in eating habits or stomachaches
  • Feeling sad, hopeless, overwhelmed or anxious
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in everyday activities and withdrawal from social supports
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

While many of these symptoms overlap with other mental health conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, two main things set an adjustment disorder apart: the cause and duration of symptoms.

An adjustment disorder is caused by an event or phase that can be identified but is not traumatic. Symptoms begin within three months of the stressful event and do not last more than six months. The cause of depression, on the other hand, is often unclear and the symptoms tend to be longer lasting. The cause of post-traumatic stress disorder, another potentially long-term condition, is an exceptional, traumatic event.

How to treat the condition

Symptoms of adjustment disorder will often go away when the stress from the event has eased, although medication may be used to treat symptoms such as insomnia, if necessary. Therapy is generally the best way to treat and manage adjustment disorders. Talking to someone can help the individual identify stressors and learn how to better manage difficult situations. Family therapy is often used for children and adolescents. Any individual with suicidal thoughts should seek help immediately.

Dr. David Lowenstein is a Columbus, Ohio-based psychologist with more than 35 years of experience. He conducts individual, family, and group therapy sessions in his German Village office and also via telehealth. Dr. Lowenstein is also available for expert forensic testimony, and for educational workshops and presentations. He is frequently called upon as an expert source for print, radio, and broadcast media. Contact Dr. Lowenstein at Lowenstein & Associates, 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206, or call 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.