(732) 222-2219

When Adjusting to Stressful Events in Life Isn’t as Easy as You’d Like It to Be

May 30, 2024

burnout in young professionals

The Mental Health Program at Nutley Family Service Bureau (NFSB) provides counseling and psychiatric services for individuals and families. This article is part of an ongoing educational series focused on common mental health challenges, treatment techniques, and helpful tips.

Change can be hard, especially when that change is tied to a stressful event or experience. In many cases, you may feel sad or overwhelmed for a brief period, but the resulting stress is often temporary, allowing you to move on with minimal disruption to your life. 

However, you may experience more intense emotional or behavioral symptoms for a longer period of time, which could indicate an adjustment disorder. Adjustment disorders are fairly common but can be serious if they start to affect your quality of life. Let’s discuss the most common causes and symptoms and steps you can take to overcome an adjustment disorder.

What Causes an Adjustment Disorder?

Stressful life events, changes, and experiences, some of which affect everyone at some point, cause adjustment disorders, including but not limited to:

  • The death of a loved one
  • Divorce or the ending of a relationship
  • Job loss
  • A serious illness
  • The birth of a child
  • Moving to a new area

“You may feel a little better a few months after a stressful life change, but an adjustment disorder can be a bit of a delayed, intense reaction that makes daily activity difficult,” said Staela Keegan, MSW, LCSW, LCADC, Senior Clinical Supervisor of the Mental Health Program at NFSB. “When a stressful situation happens, you might be in shock at first and struggle to get through the day. Then, when the dust settles, usually about three months later, the emotions suddenly hit you.”

Someone dealing with an adjustment disorder can’t move forward on their own. For example, a person goes through a breakup or divorce and it’s constantly on their mind. They’ve become consumed with sadness. They may find it difficult to get up in the morning and be productive. 

Adjustment disorders can affect people in all phases of life, from school-aged children, to adults in the middle of their careers, to seniors who are downsizing or may have lost their partner. The symptoms of an adjustment disorder go beyond everyday stressors in life and can include:

  • Persistent sadness, hopelessness, depression, or feelings of overwhelm
  • Nervousness or irritability that can’t be controlled
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Changes in sleep and/or appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating

The symptoms of an adjustment order typically last no longer than six months after the stressful event or experience, unlike chronic anxiety and depression, for example, which tend to linger much longer. 

How Counseling and Coping Skills Can Help with an Adjustment Disorder

Clients often come to NFSB for counseling because they need help processing and moving past the stressful event or experience that caused the adjustment disorder.

“Initially, therapy often provides people with validation that what they’re feeling is normal,” Staela said. “Instead of feeling ashamed to talk about their mental health issues, they find comfort in having a safe space where they can talk openly and explore coping skills. Depending on the situation, like a relationship that ended, counseling can even provide an opportunity to explore patterns of behaviors to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.”

When a client comes to NFSB, we perform a biopsychosocial assessment. That’s a clinical term that involves discussing the client’s history, relationships, work history, trauma, and more. At this point, the clinician can typically distinguish between an adjustment disorder in response to a life event versus a depressive or generalized anxiety disorder.

The next step involves developing a treatment plan with goals and action steps for addressing issues that the client is experiencing. The treatment plan may include self-care, such as getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, drinking enough water, and spending time in nature.

After the initial assessment and treatment plan, the therapist will review and update the plan every three months based on goals achieved and areas that need improvement. Once enough progress has been made, the therapist and client may decide to scale back appointments or even end therapy. With an adjustment disorder, counseling can be a short-term proposition.

“When you open up with your therapist and learn about yourself and your relationships, you may feel comfortable discussing other issues that you’ve never addressed,” Staela said. “You learn to cope with stressful situations and bounce back a little faster.”

If you suspect you’re dealing with an adjustment disorder, you can also practice coping skills that can help you process your feelings and return to the present moment. These include meditation, deep breathing, journaling, and practicing various forms of self-care.

The sooner you recognize the symptoms of an adjustment disorder, and the sooner you seek treatment, the better your chances of seeing faster progress. Of course, it’s never too late to seek help. Everyone faces circumstances that require an adjustment, and there’s nothing wrong with seeking help to make the adjustment less stressful.

If you or a loved one is showing signs of an adjustment disorder, schedule an appointment at NFSB. English- and Spanish-speaking counselors are ready to help and we’ll always respect your privacy. Call 973-667-1884 extension 1.

Dr. Proodian

Dr. James Proodian is an accomplished chiropractic physician, health educator, and professional public speaker who founded Proodian Healthcare Family of Companies to help people feel better, function better, and live longer. His expertise is in identifying clinical imbalances and restoring the body to health and functionality. Contact: jproodian@naturalhc.com or (732) 222‑2219.