What Is a Crisis?

Woman experiencing a crisis
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In mental health terms, a crisis refers not necessarily to a traumatic situation or event, but to a person’s reaction to an event. One person might be deeply affected by an event while another individual suffers little or no ill effects. The Chinese word for crisis presents an excellent depiction of the components of a crisis. The word crisis in Chinese is formed with the characters for danger and opportunity.

A crisis presents an obstacle, trauma, or threat, but it also offers an opportunity for either growth or decline.

Different Definitions of Crisis

How do difference experts define crisis? A number of different approaches and definitions exist. Many focus on how a person deals with the event rather than with the event itself.

  • “People are in a state of crisis when they face an obstacle to important life goals—and obstacle that is, for a time, insurmountable by the use of customary methods of problem-solving.” (Caplan, 1961)
  • “…an upset in equilibrium at the failure of one’s traditional problem-solving approach which results in disorganization, hopelessness, sadness, confusion, and panic.” (Lillibridge and Klukken, 1978)
  • “…crisis is a perception or experience of an event or situation as an intolerable difficulty that exceeds the person’s current resources and coping mechanisms.” (James and Gilliland, 2001)

    Types of Psychological Crisis

    We often think of a crisis as a sudden unexpected disaster, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or another cataclysmic event. However, crises can range substantially in type and severity.

    A few different types of crisis include:

    Developmental crises occur as part of the process of growing and developing through various periods of life.

    Sometimes a crisis is a predictable part of the life cycle, such as the crises described in Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development.

    Situational crises are sudden and unexpected, such as accidents and natural disasters. Getting in a car accident, experiencing a flood or earthquake, or being the victim of a crime are just a few types of situational crises.

    Existential crises are inner conflicts related to things such as life purpose, direction, and spirituality. A midlife crisis is one example of a crisis that is often rooted in existential concerns.

    A crisis can sometimes be quite obvious, such as a person losing his or her job, getting divorced, or being involved in some type of accident. In other cases, a personal crisis might be less apparent but can still lead to dramatic changes in behavior and mood. The American Psychological Association suggests that common signs of a mental health crisis include dramatic shifts in sleep habits, sudden changes in mood, withdrawal from normal activities, decreased performance at school or work, neglect of personal hygiene and changes in weight.

    Helping People Cope With Crisis

    The purpose of crisis counseling is to deal with the current status of the individual dealing with a crisis. Chronic exposure to stress or trauma can lead to mental illness, so it is important that crisis counselors have the skills and knowledge to help clients cope with current stressors and trauma. Crisis counseling is not intended to provide psychotherapy, but instead to offer short-term intervention to help clients receive assistance, support, resources, and stabilization.

    References:

    American Psychological Association. (n.d.). How to help in an emotional crisis. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/emotional-crisis.aspx.

    Caplan, G. (1961) Prevention of Mental Disorders in Children. New York: Basic Books.

    James, K. J., & Gilliland, B. E. (2001) Crisis Intervention Strategies. Pacific Grove, PA: Brook/Cole.

    Lillibridge, E. M., & Klukken, P. G. (1978) Crisis Intervention Training. Tulsa, OK: Affective House.

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