Understanding the process of adjustment to illness

Soc Sci Med. 2006 Mar;62(5):1153-66. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.07.010. Epub 2005 Aug 22.


This article examines the literature relating to adjustment to physical illness. Adjustment is invariably defined in the literature as some aspect of psychological function. However, in reality, adjustment is a process that begins at the presentation of symptoms and continues throughout the course of the illness and responds to changes in illness status. Physical illness can be conceptualized as a stressor, the demands of which depend upon the characteristics and severity of the illness. Recent research confirms that many of the factors known to be associated with the development of psychological disorders in the absence of physical illness are also relevant to the development of psychological problems in those with ill health. The prevalence of psychological disorders is also generally found to be considerably higher amongst those with a variety of health problems. Nonetheless, a considerable number of patients who experience even the most devastating of illnesses seem able to adjust to illness without experiencing clinically significant psychological problems. The processes by which these people are able to adjust and, in many cases, find positive meaning in their experiences, are important to understand. While a number of models have been put forward to explain various aspects of adjustment to chronic illness, an integrated approach that describes how the process of adjustment evolves is needed. Such an understanding will allow clinicians to improve interventions that facilitate adjustment and potentially prevent long-term problems. Facilitating a patient's adjustment to illness must be a priority in providing an optimal level of health care.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Chronic Disease / psychology*
  • Depression / etiology
  • Health Services Research
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / etiology
  • Models, Psychological
  • Sick Role*