Difference Between Adjustment Disorder and Anxiety

Adjustment disorder and anxiety are two terms often used interchangeably to describe emotional distress. However, the two conditions are different in their presentation, etiology, and treatment. Adjustment disorder refers to a maladaptive response to a stressful event, while anxiety refers to a persistent feeling of worry and fear, which may or may not have a clear trigger.

What is Adjustment Disorder?

Adjustment disorder is a condition that occurs in response to a specific stressor, such as a major life change like a death in the family, divorce, or job loss. The symptoms of adjustment disorder typically begin within three months of the stressful event and can last up to six months after the stressor has been removed. Symptoms may include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, and social withdrawal. The severity of symptoms depends on the intensity of the stressor and an individual's coping skills.

Symptoms − The symptoms of adjustment disorder include feeling hopeless and sad. Patients may also struggle to get a good night’s sleep or sleep too much. There are also often marked changes in appetite which can cause patients to either eat too much or too little food. Patients may often also feel irritable and tearful and stop doing what they would normally do.

Causes − In the case of adjustment disorder, the cause is always a major life stressor such as loss of income, loss of a job, severe physical illness, or a death in the family.

Diagnosis − Diagnosis can be made by psychologists or physicians who note the presence of the symptoms, which do not normally occur for longer than 6 months. A key part of the diagnosis is noting that the symptoms begin only after a large and major stressful life event has taken place.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a more generalized condition that can develop without any specific trigger. Individuals with anxiety experience persistent and excessive worry or fear about everyday situations, such as meeting new people, public speaking, or flying on a plane. Anxiety disorders can manifest as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Anxiety can have a significant impact on an individual's daily life, leading to avoidance behaviors, social isolation, and impairment in work or school functioning.

Symptoms − People who suffer from anxiety often feel a general sense of worry that does not go away. This feeling of foreboding, nervousness and uneasiness can result in physical symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, dizziness, increased sweating and even shaking. In severe cases, a person may have a panic attack and feel like they are about to die.

Causes − It can be difficult to pinpoint a single reason for a person having anxiety. Anxiety can be due to genetic factors, the type of personality and psychological constitution of a person, environmental stresses or even having a physical illness. Many factors may interact to make a person more vulnerable to developing chronic anxiety problems. Certain medical problems such as heart problems, hormonal changes, and even some medications can trigger anxiety.

Diagnosis − A psychologist can diagnose anxiety by noting the symptoms and they may also classify the anxiety into a specific type. Social anxiety is when a person becomes anxious only in social situations while generalized anxiety is constant nervousness and worry.

Differences: Adjustment Disorder and Anxiety

The etiology of adjustment disorder is related to a specific stressor, whereas anxiety can have various causes, including genetics, environmental factors, or chemical imbalances in the brain. People with a history of trauma or a family history of anxiety disorders may be more prone to developing anxiety. Additionally, stress and unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drug or alcohol abuse, can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.

Treatment for adjustment disorder typically involves psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help individuals learn new coping strategies, challenge negative thoughts, and develop healthy stress-management skills. Medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, may also be prescribed to manage symptoms.

In contrast, treatment for anxiety disorders depends on the specific diagnosis and may include a combination of psychotherapy, medication, or alternative treatments, such as mindfulness-based therapies or relaxation techniques. CBT is an effective treatment for most anxiety disorders, while medication may be prescribed for more severe cases. Alternative treatments may include yoga, meditation, or acupuncture.

The following table highlights the major differences between Adjustment Disorder and Anxiety −


Adjustment Disorder



Adjustment disorder is a type of depression that is due to a major life stress or event and is temporary.

Anxiety is worry and nervousness that often interferes with normal functioning and everyday life.


The cause of adjustment disorder is always an event that occurs which is stressful, such as, for instance, a death in a family.

The causes of anxiety are many and can include genetics and environment or psychological constitution.

Duration of symptoms

Symptoms of adjustment disorder only last about half a year.

Symptoms of anxiety vary depending on the type of anxiety and may be short-term or chronic.

Type of symptoms

Symptoms of adjustment disorder include sadness, irritability, changes in sleep patterns and appetite, and loss of interest in normal activities.

Symptoms of anxiety include worry, nervousness, unease, rapid heart rate, dizziness, and shortness of breath.

Panic attacks

Adjustment disorder does not generally lead to panic attacks.

Anxiety disorders do often lead to panic attacks.


In conclusion, while adjustment disorder and anxiety share some symptoms, they are different in their etiology, presentation, and treatment. Adjustment disorder is a short-term condition that occurs in response to a specific stressor, while anxiety is a more generalized condition that can have various causes.

Treatment for both conditions may involve psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both, but the specific approach depends on the individual's diagnosis and needs.

Updated on: 04-Apr-2023


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