Key Takeaways Key Takeaways
  • Adjustment Disorder is a relatively broad diagnosis in the sense that it encompasses a range of emotional and behavioral reactions to specific stressors or life changes.

  • The treatment plan for Adjustment Disorder can be influenced by the specific subtype of adjustment disorder that an individual is diagnosed with. Each subtype is characterized by different predominant symptoms and emotional experiences, and tailoring the treatment approach to align with these symptoms can enhance its effectiveness.

  • Different types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), supportive therapy, and mindfulness-based therapies, are proven to be the most effective in addressing various symptoms and promoting emotional resilience.

A Guide to Personalized Adjustment Disorder Treatment Plans

The term “adjustment disorder” was coined to describe a set of symptoms and experiences that individuals go through when they have difficulty coping with specific stressors or life changes.

Imagine someone facing a significant life change—maybe they’ve moved to a new city, gone through a breakup, or experienced a major loss. These changes trigger a range of emotions, and that’s completely normal. After all, life is full of adjustments, like learning a new dance with every twist in the story.

However, there’s a subtle but important distinction between dealing with changes and struggling with a full-blown disorder. Coping with change is like learning a new dance step—it might take time, but it’s part of the rhythm of life. On the other hand, an adjustment disorder is like stumbling on the dance floor. It’s when the emotions become overwhelming, and the person has trouble keeping up with the beat.

Adjustment Disorder (AD) is a recognized and proper medical diagnosis within the field of mental health. It’s listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is a widely used manual for diagnosing mental health conditions.

Adjustment disorder symptoms encompass emotional shifts like persistent sadness or anxiety, behavioral changes such as withdrawing from social interactions, physical effects like headaches or fatigue, cognitive challenges like negative thoughts, and possible strain on relationships or work/school performance. These reactions typically arise within three months of a stressor’s onset and can disrupt daily life.

Children and adolescents with adjustment disorder commonly exhibit a depressed/irritable mood, sleep disturbances, and poor performance in school.

Adjustment Disorder is a relatively broad diagnosis in the sense that it encompasses a range of emotional and behavioral reactions to specific stressors or life changes. It doesn’t have the specific criteria and distinct symptomatology that other more defined mental health disorders might have. This is because adjustment disorder is not focused on a particular set of symptoms but rather on the timing and context of the symptoms in relation to a stressor.

Because adjustment disorder is diagnosed based on the presence of symptoms that occur within three months of the onset of a stressor, it can manifest in various ways depending on the individual and the nature of the stressor. This flexibility allows it to cover a broader range of emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and physical responses that people might experience when struggling to adapt to change.

What Options Are Available for an Adjustment Disorder Treatment Plan?

The treatment plan for Adjustment Disorder can be influenced by the specific subtype of adjustment disorder that an individual is diagnosed with. Each subtype is characterized by different predominant symptoms and emotional experiences, and tailoring the treatment approach to align with these symptoms can enhance its effectiveness. However, it’s important to note that treatment plans are also influenced by the individual’s unique circumstances, preferences, and overall well-being. One study, in particular, cited psychotherapy as one of the most impactful ways to treat Adjustment Disorders, and recognized that many gaps still exist in understanding the condition. For this reason, the flexibility and personalization of Psychotherapy fit well with most treatment plans.

Adjustment Disorder with Depressed Mood: If an individual is diagnosed with this subtype and is predominantly experiencing symptoms of depression, the treatment plan might include interventions that focus on addressing low mood, lack of interest, and feelings of hopelessness. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques that target negative thought patterns and behavioral activation strategies might be emphasized. Medication treatment options are typically considered when the symptoms are significantly impairing an individual’s daily functioning and quality of life. It’s important to note that medication is most effective when used in conjunction with psychotherapy and other non-pharmacological interventions.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed for depression-related symptoms in Adjustment Disorder. Examples include sertraline, escitalopram, and fluoxetine. These medications help regulate serotonin levels in the brain, which can improve mood and reduce feelings of sadness. Atypical antidepressants like bupropion, mirtazapine, and trazodone may be considered if SSRIs are not well-tolerated or effective. These medications work through different mechanisms to alleviate depressive symptoms.

Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety: For individuals with this subtype, treatment could incorporate techniques to manage heightened anxiety, worry, and physical symptoms. Relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and exposure-based therapies might be beneficial.

Mindfulness practices, like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), cultivate present-moment awareness, reducing anxiety’s grip and promoting emotional balance. Particularly beneficial for specific fears or phobias, Exposure Therapy gradually exposes individuals to anxiety-provoking situations in a controlled manner. Over time, this can reduce anxiety responses. When medications are needed, anti-anxiety medicines (benzodiazepines) are the main drugs used to treat adjustment disorder.

Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Disturbance of Emotions and Conduct: In cases where emotional symptoms and disruptive behavior coexist, treatment might involve a combination of strategies to address both emotional regulation and behavioral challenges. 

Unspecified Adjustment Disorder: When the diagnosis doesn’t align neatly with any specific subtype, treatment plans will still be tailored to address the individual’s symptoms and needs. This might involve a more flexible approach that draws from various therapeutic techniques.

Overall, the subtype of adjustment disorder helps guide treatment planning by highlighting the primary symptoms and emotional experiences that need to be addressed. However, individualized care remains crucial, as every person’s adjustment disorder experience is unique.

How to Overcome Challenges in Adjustment Disorder Treatment

Treatment for Adjustment Disorder can have its challenges. Resistance to therapy or medication, or the presence of external stressors, can make treatment more complex. Encountering challenges along the journey is common, and there are many solutions that can have people well on their way to mental wellness.

Addressing Resistance

If there is resistance to therapy, it’s essential to explore those feelings with the provider. Open communication can often lead to a breakthrough and a more effective treatment plan.

Remember that you cannot find a solution if you never voice the problem in the first place. Your Mental Health professional is there to support you and help you walk through any doubts you might have about your treatment plan.

Dealing with External Stressors

External stressors, like ongoing family or work challenges, can impede progress. Working closely with a provider to navigate these issues is key to success. Oftentimes, a mental health professional is able to see a situation from an outside perspective, which can shed light on the external stressors that could be holding you back from achieving your treatment goals.

An ongoing relationship with your mental health care provider is vital. Regular assessments and adjustments to the treatment plan ensure it continues to meet your needs.

How to Find the Right Provider for an Adjustment Disorder Treatment Plan

Finding the right provider, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, or licensed therapists, can make all the difference in your recovery. Look for professionals with experience in Adjustment Disorder and who you feel comfortable confiding in.

Treatment length can vary widely depending on the individual and their specific circumstances. Regular communication with a mental health care provider will guide the treatment duration.

Creating an effective Adjustment Disorder treatment plan is a complex but rewarding process. Understanding the prerequisites and exploring the options available for therapy and medication is essential to finding the right path to healing.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults suffering from a variety of mental health issues in an outpatient care setting, both in-person and through its digital health telemedicine offering.


Reviewed By

Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S
Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S

Nicholette is a faculty member at John Carroll University’s Clinical Counseling program, and she is also the host of the LifeStance podcast, Convos from the Couch.