Adaptational Problems

Life changes can cause stress and anxiety or increase already existing anxiety. According to the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5), adjustment disorder is "the development of emotional or behavioral symptoms in response to an identifiable stressor(s) occurring within 3 months of the onset of the stressor(s)." The changes cause significant distress, and they interfere with one's ability to work, play, socialize, interact, and in general live life.

While adjustment disorder is classified as a trauma- and stress-related disorder rather than an anxiety disorder, facing change and experiencing adjustment disorder can exacerbate anxiety. Whether change is positive (such as starting school, moving, or having a baby) or negative (such as a move that you don't want, being fired from a job, or going through a divorce), it disrupts life as we know it. Change brings upheaval, and upheaval can increase anxiety.

Adjustment Disorder Causes

When we're going through change, it's normal to experience stress and anxiety. After all, we have new routines, new norms, new rhythms, and a lot of unknowns. When adapting to the new and dealing with the unknown feels impossible, it's not uncommon for people to become stuck, mired in things like anxiety and even depression. It's the inability to adjust that leads to a diagnosis of adjustment disorder.

When we're facing change, anxiety can be closely related to adjustment disorder. The racing thoughts, fear, worry, agitation, avoidance, physical symptoms, and emotional disturbances of anxiety can be made worse by adjustment disorder, or they can be newly caused by adjustment disorder.

Whether anxiety is intensified by change and adjustment disorder, or whether it is caused for the first time by change and adjustment disorder, it doesn't have to last. Both anxiety and adjustment disorder can be treated and managed even when you're facing change.

Treating Anxiety Related to Adjustment Disorder

When we experience a positive change, we don't want anxiety to hang around interfering in the our new happiness. When we experience a negative change, we want to get through it and move on rather than letting anxiety and adjustment disorder keep us stuck where we don't want to be. To be sure, overcoming change-related anxiety isn't as simple as "just getting over it." Happily, though, we don't have to surrender. While we can't always control the changes that come our way in life, we can control our actions, reactions, and forward movement.

The following list of ideas contains a few ideas for overcoming anxiety related to change. It's very helpful to work with a professional therapist as you go through the process of adjusting to change and decreasing anxiety, but these thoughts might be helpful or even lead to new ideas of your own.

  • Define what it will be like when you're unstuck and less anxious. Knowing that you don't want anxiety to hold you back won't quite get you to where you want to be. Know specifically what you want, keep your thoughts on that rather than on your anxiety and adjustment difficulties. A positive, specific goal or vision is easier to work toward than merely not wanting anxiety.

  • Create small action plans to get you to where you want to be. What little things can you do every day, or every hour in the day, to overcome anxiety and work toward your vision? Small, regular steps make big progress.

  • Identify your symptoms and rank them from most bothersome to least bothersome. This will let you tackle your symptoms one by one. Determine what makes you feel better, and commit to doing these things regularly.

  • Create new routines. Part of anxiety and adjustment disorder comes from a disruption in routine. Take charge of making new routines in your life at home, school, work, etc. As you fall into predictable routines, the newness won't feel foreign and uncomfortable anymore, and anxiety related to adjustment disorder will decrease.