Adjusting to difficult life events

Do you…

  • Have difficulties adjusting or getting used to life following a recent stressful event and/or significant change in your life (e.g. serious illness, bereavement, a relationship ending, loss of employment)?
  • Find it hard to cope, plan ahead or continue with life after this stressful event or change?
  • Experience tension, anxiety or depressed mood as a result of this stressful event or change?
  • Suffer from physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach-aches, fatigue or dizziness in the time following this stressful event or change?
  • Feel like you do not want to be around other people or have difficulties with everyday activities since this stressful event or change?

If you find that you are experiencing some or all of the symptoms above then please read on.

What is Stress and what is the diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder?

Stress is the word that many people use when they are describing how the demands of their life seem to be increasingly difficult for them to cope with. For many, stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure and this can build up in various areas of our lives (e.g. work and relationships). The ability to cope with this pressure varies from person to person and what one person finds stressful may not be a problem for someone else.

Low levels of stress are normal, most of us experience this; this form of stress can be useful to us at times to help us focus on a goal or to highlight something that needs to change. However, on-going stress can cause problems and make us feel physically unwell. For more information on stress and how to manage it please click here.

Sometimes change can be much harder for a person to cope with and it is very difficult to carry on. When this goes beyond the usual range of difficulty it can be called an ‘Adjustment Disorder’. This is a medical diagnosis which reflects the depth and intensity of the reaction, and indicates that the reaction has gone beyond what would usually be expected.

The problems can be in reaction to one or more significant and stressful events or life changes. These could include: bereavement, divorce, separation or a relationship ending, serious illness or health issues in yourself or among friends or family, loss of employment, financial hardships, moving to a different home, country or city or other unexpected catastrophes or general life changes. Such stressful life events or changes can affect you in a number of ways. You might:

  • Become distressed or preoccupied with the stressful event or life change

  • Feel low or depressed in mood

  • Feel anxious and worried

  • Feel overwhelmed or unable to cope

  • Experience physical symptoms (such as insomnia, headache, abdominal pain, chest pain, palpitations, tiredness, dizziness, muscle tension or pain, concentration difficulties, loss of appetite)

  • Feel socially withdrawn or unable to carry out everyday activities and notice an impact on your work or academic performance

Adjustment disorder can be acute, where it lasts for up to 6 months, or chronic (lasting for longer), when the stressful event or change has longer term consequences.

How common is adjustment disorder?

We all experience some level of stress at various points in life and the ability to cope with stress varies from person to person. People tend to be more likely to develop adjustment disorder during times of typical transition and change, such as during adolescence and in mid or late life. Men and women are affected equally.

What can I do about it?

Stress and adjustment disorder can be managed with guided self help, psychological therapy and/or medication. Depending on your circumstances, you may benefit from one of these types of treatment or a combination of the two.

Guided Self-Help options

  • Groups and workshops where you can learn strategies for managing stress.
  • Guided Self Help, where a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner will guide you through self-help materials on managing stress.
  • Computerised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (cCBT) Silvercloud is a specially designed online program for those suffering from stress, low mood or anxiety and it is based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. You can work through the online sessions from home on your own computer via the internet.
  • Books on prescription. Some people find that reading about their problems can help. There are many books based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These books can help you understand more about your psychological problems and learn ways of overcoming them by changing your thinking and behaviour. To find out more about recommended books click here.

Psychological Therapy

Different types of therapies are available for people with adjustment difficulties. These include:

  • Counselling. Counselling may be offered within our service or by one of our partner organisations in Camden (if you have a Camden GP), or we may direct you to charitable organizations in your local community.

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy involves looking at the way in which your thinking and behaviour may affect your mood. Treatment can be offered in one-to-one sessions or in a group.

  • Interpersonal Therapy is a time-limited and structured approach to the treatment of depression. Its central idea is that psychological symptoms, such as depressed mood, can be understood as a response to current difficulties in relationships and can affect the quality of those relationships. By addressing interpersonal situations, improvements to both relationships and depressive mood can be made.

  • Behavioural Couples Therapy for people who have a regular partner and where the relationship may be linked to the depression, or where involving the partner may be of potential therapeutic benefit.

  • Dynamic Interpersonal Therapy  helps you understand the connection between your depression symptoms and what is happening in your relationships by looking at patterns that can be traced back to your childhood.

If you would like to know more about guided self help or psychological therapy, please contact us. Alternatively, you may wish to speak to your GP about a referral to our service.

How can I help myself?

If you would like to read more about how you can help yourself please click here

If you are affected by stress or adjustment disorder, there are many ways that you can ease the impact of stress or anxiety yourself. Useful self-help strategies include:

Exercise: regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, will help you combat stress and release tension. It also encourages your brain to release the chemical serotonin, which can improve your mood. Aim to do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. Moderate exercise should make you feel slightly out of breath and tired. Going for a brisk walk is a good example.

Relaxation and controlled breathing: as well as getting regular exercise, learning how to relax is important. You may find relaxation and breathing exercises helpful, or you may prefer activities such as yoga or pilates to help you unwind.

Diet: changing your diet may help ease your symptoms. Too much caffeine can make you more anxious than normal. This is because caffeine can disrupt your sleep and also speed up your heartbeat. If you are tired, you are less likely to be able to manage your anxious symptoms.

Smoking and drinking: smoking and alcohol have been shown to make feelings of anxiety worse. Drink alcohol in moderation and, if you smoke, try to give up. The NHS and your GP provide free support to people who would like to stop smoking.

Support groups for stress and adjustment disorder: these are also a good way to meet other people with similar experiences. Support groups often involve face-to-face meetings where you can talk about your difficulties and problems with other people. Many support groups also provide support and guidance over the phone or in writing. Ask your GP about local support groups in your area or look up online emotional support services near you.

Understanding your stress and anxiety: some people find that reading about stress and anxiety can help. There are many books based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These books can help you understand more about your psychological problems and learn ways of overcoming them by changing your thinking and behaviour. To find out more about recommended books click here.

Acknowledgment of references