Has a major life change left you feeling empty and off-balance? Are you feeling anxious and depressed about something you thought you’d be excited about? You might be experiencing a serious but treatable condition known as chronic adjustment disorder.
Most of us have experienced a time when change has completely overwhelmed us. French poet and novelist Anatole France wrote:
“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”
While we often adjust to our new circumstances over time, it is possible that we may find ourselves struggling for longer than usual, or more intensely than we have before.
When a major change occurs that you can’t seem to bounce back from, this may be due to a condition called chronic adjustment disorder. Also known as ‘situational depression’, chronic adjustment disorder occurs when someone experiences noticeable, negative emotional or behavioural impacts around a life change for a period of time. If left undiagnosed, chronic adjustment disorder can lead to longer-term mental health issues, but recognising and treating it often yields positive outcomes.
What Causes Adjustment Disorder?
Any type of significant life change, including one that you may perceive as positive, can potentially lead to adjustment disorder. This disorder arises from the stress of a change resulting in an uncharacteristic and disproportionate behavioural or emotional reaction. Essentially, the change is more than we can bear using our usual coping mechanisms. The change can include events like:
- Break-up or divorce
- Losing a job or starting a new one
- Having a baby
- Illness or injuries
- The death of a loved one
Adjustment disorders occur within three months of a change or stressor, and generally resolve within six months. However, chronic adjustment disorders last longer, and can contribute to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse issues. Your genetics, previous life experience, and your personality can affect your likelihood of developing adjustment disorder.
Understanding the Difference: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Adjustment Disorder
While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and adjustment disorder can have overlapping symptoms, and arise from significant life changes, a key difference is in the type of event that generates the symptoms. Adjustment disorder stems from an event that may be stressful, but is still within the normal range of people’s life experiences. Symptoms occur in fairly close proximity to the event, and may resolve on their own, or extend into a chronic condition that requires treatment.
PTSD, on the other hand, comes from an extreme, traumatising experience in which a person fears death or serious injury, possibly from a violent act, or witnesses this occurring to another person. Such an event embeds fear, horror, and helplessness into the psyche, which may not generate symptoms until months or even years later, and necessitates treatment.
I’ve Dealt with a Lot in Life…Why am I Having Trouble Adjusting Now?
It is common for people to be caught unaware by the depth of their emotional reaction, and to question why something would throw them so far off-kilter. Adjustment disorder occurs when we are beyond the range of our ability to cope, which can happen for a variety of reasons.
1. There’s so much else going on
A common factor in adjustment disorder is the presence of other stressors that weaken our ability to deal with the change when it occurs. For example, you’ve just moved to a new place where you are far from family and your usual support system, learning the ropes at a new job, and possibly acquiring a new language. The combined stress of these changes can lead to adjustment disorder.
Similarly, if you go through a break-up at the same time that you are dealing with an illness in the family, plus going through a transition at work; this can also cause you to feel the pain of the break-up far more acutely than you would at another period of your life.
2. Your past is catching up with you
Sometimes a change occurs that touches an old, unresolved trauma or issue, unearthing previously tucked away feelings. If you had a difficult childhood for example, having a child of your own may cause a sudden reignition of old fears and stressors. The impact of these previously hidden but still painful feelings in combination with the stress of adjusting to a new change can trigger adjustment disorder.
3. You are already managing another mental health condition
Because living with a mental health condition already requires the use of a variety of coping mechanisms and healthy habits to manage symptoms, the addition of a significant life change may feel overwhelming. These new stressors can push beyond your ability to cope, and lead to symptoms of adjustment disorder.
Common Symptoms of Adjustment Disorder
The symptoms of adjustment disorder are generally emotional or behavioural in nature, but can also affect your sense of physical wellbeing. Common symptoms of adjustment disorder include:
- Often feeling worried or anxious
- Depressed mood
- Often feeling near tears, or unable to stop crying
- Jittery and agitated; “on edge”
- Feeling hopeless
- Engaging in reckless or socially inappropriate behaviour
- Withdrawing from usual support networks, isolating
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing
- Failing to perform usual work, school, or household tasks
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviour
If these symptoms don’t resolve in the months following the event, it is possible to develop chronic adjustment disorder, which can lead to serious anxiety, depression and substance abuse. If you notice that things aren’t beginning to ease after several months following a life change, or you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, it is important to seek treatment.
Treating Chronic Adjustment Disorder
Reaching out to a professional mental health specialist is an important step towards overcoming chronic adjustment disorder. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a common psychotherapeutic technique used by therapists to analyse the root cause of negative feelings or behaviours and build healthy coping mechanisms. A therapist may also suggest certain wellness practices, such as yoga or meditation, to help relax and focus the mind and body.
Recognising the symptoms of chronic adjustment disorder and getting help is critical in preventing further mental health issues, and making a healthy, positive return to your life.
Learning How to Cope with Change at The Dawn
The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab in Thailand offers a Mental Wellness Programme for those struggling with a mental health issue including chronic adjustment disorder. Our programme is specially designed to help clients address the issues that underlie their condition, and learn skills to manage it. Our Western-trained clinical team has created a programme which uses a mix of the latest psychotherapeutic techniques, cutting-edge technology and scientifically-proven Eastern wellness practices to ensure holistic healing and instill healthy coping skills.
If a life change has you feeling overwhelmed, The Dawn can help. Call us today to learn more.