Psychological Crisis Types and Causes

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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 different experts define a 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 Crises

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 crises include:

  • Developmental crises: These 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.
  • Existential crises: Inner conflicts are 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 anxiety.
  • Situational crises: These sudden and unexpected crises include 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.

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.

Signs of a Crisis

Common signs of a mental health crisis include:

  • Changes in weight
  • Decreased performance at school or work
  • Dramatic shifts in sleep habits
  • Neglect of personal hygiene
  • Sudden changes in mood
  • Withdrawal from normal activities

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What to Do During a Crisis

If you are coping with a crisis, whether it's emotional or situational, there are things that you can do to help ensure your psychological and physical well-being during this difficult time of your life.

Prioritize Your Time

Focus on what's important at the moment. This can mean getting yourself out of an unsafe situation or it can mean just focusing on the basics so that you can get through each day. Avoid taking on too much and conserve your energy so you can deal with the problem you are facing.

Find Help and Support

It's important to lean on friends, family, and loved ones during a crisis, but you should also seek professional help if you need it. Consider talking to your doctor about what you are dealing with.

Your doctor may be able to help or refer you to resources in the community, or they might recommend a mental health professional who can help. Community resources such as crisis centers and support groups can also provide assistance.

Care for Yourself

Look for ways to lessen your stress, whether it means asking other people to share your burdens or using stress management techniques such as meditation or deep breathing. Practice good self-care, each a healthy diet, and try to get plenty of sleep each night.

Helping Others Cope With a Crisis

If a friend or loved one is going through an emotional or situational crisis, there are things that you can do to offer practical and psychological support.

Be a Good Listener

Being supportive and listening to your friend's thoughts, fears, grief, or anxiety is important. Focus on offering support and encouragement without giving simplistic solutions that may come off as judgemental or even patronizing. Allow your friend to tell you how they are feeling and let them know that you are there for them.

Assist With Practical Needs

Instrumental support can be critical during a crisis. Helping with everyday tasks such as housework, grocery shopping, cooking, or errands can help take the burden off of your friend while they are coping with a crisis.

Encourage Professional Support

If your friend or loved one is struggling, encourage them to reach out to a mental health professional for additional support and advice. You might help them look for a therapist or even offer to drive them to their appointment.

Short-term crisis counseling can be helpful when an individual is coping with something overwhelming or traumatic. 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. Crisis counselors have skills and knowledge that can 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.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zanello A, Berthoud L, Bacchetta JP. Emotional crisis in a naturalistic context: characterizing outpatient profiles and treatment effectivenessBMC Psychiatry. 2017;17(1):130. doi:10.1186/s12888-017-1293-3

  2. Al-Sulaiman RJ, Bener A, Doodson L, et al. Exploring the effectiveness of crisis counseling and psychoeducation in relation to improving mental well-being, quality of life and treatment compliance of breast cancer patients in QatarInt J Womens Health. 2018;10:285–298. doi:10.2147/IJWH.S161840

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."