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Adjustment Disorder: Signs & Symptoms

Whenever we experience a significant change in life, we go through an adjustment period while we settle into our new normal. Almost everyone feels uncomfortable with change and needs some time to adjust before they feel peaceful and happy again. However, some people experience severe and long-lasting stress after a life transition. Adjustment disorders can cause painful emotional and behavioral symptoms in older adults. Seniors may struggle to regain their quality of life after going through a stressful or unexpected change, which could lead to a decline in physical or cognitive health. If you or a loved one is aging, you should be able to identify the signs of an adjustment disorder so that you can reach out for support when needed.

What Is Adjustment Disorder?

An adjustment disorder is an unhealthy response to stressful life events or major life transitions. Most people thrive in routine and consistency, and when there’s a disruption in this structure, adjusting can be very difficult. Sometimes, even positive changes in life can lead to mental or emotional turmoil because giving up the day-to-day life we’re comfortable with feels so unnatural.
Everyone copes with stress differently, and some people have stronger support networks than others. People may be especially vulnerable to developing adjustment disorders if they don’t have healthy coping skills, if they feel socially isolated, or if they already struggle with anxiety or another mental health disorder.
An adjustment disorder can develop at any age, but it’s most common at ages where people experience big life transitions. This is the case for many seniors, so older adults may be more likely to develop adjustment disorders.

Causes of Adjustment Disorder

You might struggle with an adjustment disorder after a life transition or a major change that disrupts your normal routine. The following are some of the most common triggers for an adjustment disorder in older adults:

  • Retirement
  • Death of a spouse or other close loved one
  • Moving to a retirement community or skilled nursing facility
  • New medical diagnosis, disability, or chronic health problem
  • Loss of mobility or independence

Not all older adults who go through one of these experiences will develop an adjustment disorder. There are a number of risk factors that may increase your likelihood of struggling with this issue. For example, if you have a pre-existing mental health condition, you might find it harder to cope with the stress of a life transition. An adjustment disorder is also more likely when you deal with multiple difficult life events at once.

Signs and Symptoms of Adjustment Disorder

Adjustment disorders are a category of mental health disorders, so there are multiple types of diagnoses. Each type of adjustment disorder has distinct symptoms, so two people with adjustment disorders may present very differently.
If you have adjustment disorder with depressed mood, you may experience intense sadness regarding the life transition, or you may feel a loss of interest in your usual activities. If you have adjustment disorder with anxiety, you might feel overwhelmed by your stress. Some seniors struggle with both anxious and depressive symptoms brought on by their adjustment disorder.
If you make dangerous or reckless decisions following a major life event, you might be diagnosed with adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct. Other types of adjustment disorders involve a combination of these emotional and behavioral symptoms. Sometimes, an individual’s symptoms don’t perfectly align with a specific type of adjustment disorder, but they still show the general symptoms of the disorder.
Because adjustment disorders involve signs and symptoms that are common in other mental health conditions, they may go overlooked in older adults. Accurate diagnosis is the key to treatment, though, so it’s important to be watchful for the signs of adjustment disorder in yourself or a loved one.

Here Are Four Signs That You Might Be Struggling to Adjust after a Life Transition


1. You feel sad or hopeless much of the time.

Depression is a common component of adjustment disorders. When you go through a significant change, you may feel like you’re grieving your old life. You might cry frequently throughout the day or lose interest in your hobbies or passions. Getting out of bed and completing your activities of daily living may feel difficult because your energy levels have declined.
Loved ones sometimes overlook the signs of depression in older adults, especially if the symptoms develop after the senior moves into a care facility, experiences a medical emergency, or loses their mobility. People may think that depressive symptoms are a natural result of these events or are a sign of cognitive decline instead of emotional pain. No matter the circumstances, though, signs of depression should be taken very seriously in seniors.

2. You experience unexplained physical health symptoms.

For many older adults, mental health disorders cause physical symptoms. This is particularly common with anxiety, which is a major sign of an adjustment disorder. If you’re experiencing physical health symptoms with no clear cause, they might be brought on by an adjustment disorder or another mental health condition.
The following are symptoms to look out for in seniors:

  • Racing heart or heart palpitations
  • Nausea, stomach pain, or indigestion
  • Muscle pain or tension
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of appetite


3. You don’t want to see your family or friends anymore.

Social support is critical when you’re going through a life transition, and pulling away from your loved ones at this time may be a sign that you’re dealing with an adjustment disorder. You might feel too tired or too sad to see your friends or family, or you may simply want to be alone all the time. While spending some time by yourself is healthy, completing isolating yourself is not.
Compare how much time you used to spend with your loved ones to how much time you spend with them now. If you’re seeing friends or family far less frequently than you used to, ask yourself why this has happened.

4. You feel the urge to do something reckless or impulsive.

For some people, adjustment disorders manifest in behavioral symptoms rather than in noticeable mental or emotional symptoms. Impulsive behavior may be a way to feel like you’re regaining control over your life, or it might be a form of distraction from the challenges you’re facing.
Reckless behavior may involve drinking excessively, using drugs, or intentionally ceasing to take your prescribed medication. Dangerous driving, violence, and vandalism are common behaviors in people with adjustment disorders, too.
Coping with change is rarely easy, but it doesn’t have to feel impossible. With support from family, friends, or mental health professionals, you can overcome your adjustment disorder and continue living life to the fullest despite the challenges you’re facing. Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides therapy for older adults struggling with adjustment disorders, depression, anxiety, and other concerns. Reach out today to learn more about our services.

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