Difference Between Adjustment Disorder and MDD

Adjustment Disorder (AD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) are two mental health conditions that are often confused with each other. While they share some similarities, they are distinct in terms of their causes, symptoms, and treatment approaches. In this essay, I will discuss the differences between Adjustment Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder.

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 MDD?

MDD is a type of depression that occurs without an obvious trigger. It is a mood disorder that affects a person's thoughts, feelings, and behavior. MDD is diagnosed when an individual has experienced a persistent depressed mood or loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy for at least two weeks. Other symptoms of MDD include fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, changes in appetite, and thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Unlike AD, MDD can last for a prolonged period, and individuals may require long-term treatment.

Symptoms − Symptoms include feeling fatigued, feeling sadness, losing interest in activities which normally bring pleasure, difficulty focusing and concentrating on anything, and sleep is often disturbed in some way. Patients may also often feel suicidal when they have MDD. People with MDD often look very sad as shown by their facial expressions, and they often may become neglectful of personal hygiene and may eat poorly.

Causes − The causes of MDD are not known for certain but are thought to involve a mix of genetic and environmental factors. Genetic changes impact the serotonin that is produced in the brain, which is associated with MDD symptoms. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter chemical that influences mood and thus disturbances to the levels of this chemical have been found to be associated with depressive symptoms. Major depressive disorder is believed to be at least 35% genetic and is thus present in many individuals and multiple generations of the same family. Childhood physical and sexual abuse, are also potential causes of MDD later in life.

Differences: Adjustment Disorder and MDD

The significant difference between AD and MDD is their underlying causes. AD is primarily caused by a specific life stressor, whereas MDD has a more complex set of risk factors. Genetics, brain chemistry, and life experiences can all contribute to the development of MDD. Individuals with MDD may have a family history of depression or have experienced childhood trauma. They may also have imbalances in the neurotransmitters that regulate mood, such as serotonin and dopamine.

Finally, the treatment approaches for AD and MDD differ. AD typically requires supportive therapy and stress management techniques to help individuals cope with the stressor. In contrast, MDD is treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Antidepressants can help regulate neurotransmitters and improve mood, while cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help individuals identify negative thought patterns and develop coping strategies.

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


Adjustment Disorder



Adjustment disorder is only a short-term form of depression that occurs due to a major stressful life event that has taken place.

Major depressive disorder is a long-term type of depression which is caused by many factors


Adjustment disorder is always caused by one major stress in a person’s life.

MDD is caused by a combination of factors, including genetics.

Duration of symptoms

The symptoms of adjustment disorder only last for about 6 months.

The symptoms of MDD usually last longer than 6 months.


Treatment for adjustment disorder can include psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy and only rarely, benzodiazepine drugs; and the condition can resolve on its own sometimes.

Treatment for MDD includes psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy and medications such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines; MDD is a condition for which treatment is always needed.

Age when condition appears

Adjustment disorder does not usually happen at a specific age since it is related to a stressful event.

MDD often begins during late adolescence.


In conclusion, Adjustment Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder are two distinct mental health conditions that share some similarities but differ in their causes, symptoms, and treatment approaches. AD is time-limited and caused by a specific life stressor, while MDD can be chronic and has a more complex set of risk factors. AD is treated with supportive therapy, while MDD requires a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Accurately diagnosing and treating these conditions is crucial for individuals to receive the appropriate care and support needed to manage their mental health effectively.

Updated on: 17-Apr-2023


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