Psychological crises in life

Pilt: Vitorio Benedetti

Pilt: Vitorio Benedetti

Crises can happen to anyone. They are simply a part of life. People experience crises in different ways. While crises may leave scars, it is possible to surmount them and to live with their consequences.

Crises may be tied to developmental phases or life events. Life events such as starting kindergarten or school, puberty, moving away from home, moving in with someone, marriage, starting a new job or quitting one affect everyone. Something is left behind and something new begins. Not everyone will experience a crisis during developmental changes, but many people have a stronger reaction or need more time and additional resources to cope with them. Crises may also break out due to long-term, difficult circumstances such as divorce, unemployment, or chronic disease.

A traumatic crisis may follow an unexpected, very impactful event which causes suffering and a feeling of helplessness. Examples would be getting into an accident or witnessing one, experiencing or witnessing violence, losing an important person or perhaps a job.

Trauma is a term used to describe a state of intense psychological pain, where traumatic experiences, feelings or thoughts linger in the mind or the body.

A crisis may be brought on by:

  • The death of a loved one
  • A suicide
  • Serious illness of oneself or of a loved one
  • Behaviour which has caused shame or confusion, such as drunk driving, indecent behaviour (also online), incarceration.
  • Unemployment
  • Financial difficulties
  • A road traffic accident, a fire
  • Natural disasters
  • Domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual assault at home, in the street…
  • Being the victim of a mugging, theft, assault
  • Having a near miss
  • Problems to do with parenting, infertility, miscarriage, illness of a child
  • Problems to do with close relationships, such as divorce or infidelity
  • Moving to a different city or country

Coping skills

Taking care of one’s body and getting physical exercise can reduce the body’s stress level in a crisis. Exercise increases the production of endorphins in the body, but also helps to divert focus away from difficult feelings and thoughts.

Being outdoors, walking

Doing sports

Relaxation skills

Regular healthy meals

Sufficient and good-quality sleep

Spiritual practices and religion or faith can be helpful in a crisis. They may give hope, help to trust life again, and remind us what is really important.

Finding support and hope in religion or spiritual ideas and values

Finding meaning in life

Prayer, meditation

Some people find that being informed about what happened, unpacking, and creating a cohesive picture of it help them to get over a crisis. When not enough pertinent information is available, our imagination starts to run wild and can create a mental image of what happened that is many times more terrifying than reality. That is why it is important to also discuss traumatic events or crises with children, taking into account their developmental stage and choosing the right words: ,

Finding relevant new information

Making plans

Improving problem solving skills

Using your imagination

Seeing the positive in different situations

Exploring and trying out new behaviour patterns

Strong emotions are often one of the most disruptive aspects of a crisis. Many people find it helpful to put their emotions into words or to talk about them. At the same time, talking is not mandatory – or even the best solution for everyone. Feelings can also be shared by simply spending time with other people or doing common activities. However, it is important to know that if difficult feelings are not addressed in any way, they may re-emerge later in life and begin to inhibit recovery.

-taking note of your feelings

-laughing, crying, feeling joy

-talking about your feelings

-expressing your feelings through activities, writing, drawing, painting, listening to or making music, dancing, preparing food…

Being around other people and sharing difficulties are important to almost everyone who needs to confront a crisis.

-Spending time with friends or family

-Engaging in hobbies with other people

-Accepting support from and offering support to others

-Sharing your experiences with others

A traumatic crisis which has been triggered by the loss of a loved one or an accident follows a different course for different people. The different phases that people often go through are described below. The phases may not occur in the same order for everyone, or be clearly distinguishable.

Phases of a traumatic crisis

The shock phase occurs immediately after the event which triggered the crisis. In this phase, the person cannot fully comprehend what happened, they may even disbelieve it or deny it. Some people behave as if they were paralysed or petrified in that situation, some carry on in a dull, machine-like manner. Other people react with great anxiety or excitement, they may cry or shout. They may also alter between dullness and restlessness.

Common reactions include:

  • Denial
  • Lack or inhibition of emotions
  • Feeling of surrealness
  • Crying, shouting, panic

An apparent lack of emotions may confuse the person themselves as well as the people around them. However, not all events can immediately be accepted and completely understood. A state of shock may protect the person and allow the magnitude of the event to sink in gradually. This gives them time to adapt. A person who is in such a state needs to know that they are safe, the things that are going around them are logical, and the situation is under control. They should be addressed using a calm tone. It should be considered that a person who is in a state of shock may not be able to accept and maintain large amounts of complicated information. They should therefore be spoken to in a clear, calm, plain manner.

In this phase, the person slowly begins to make sense of what happened and what it means to them. They may have strange sensations or experiences at first, such as sensing the presence of a lost loved one or hearing their voice, feeling their touch. This means that the person’s brain has not yet completely adapted to the new reality.

A person who is in the reactive phase needs someone to listen to them, and also someone to help them to cope with their daily activities. Sometimes the person needs to be reminded when it is time to eat, go to sleep, or get dressed. Memories of what happened can often emerge when the person is awake as well as during sleep. They may be triggered by a sound, a scent, or a word. The memories may be disturbing or frightening. Emotions may be very strong in that phase, the person may find it unbearable, like they are losing their mind, not believing that they will get over it.

Commonly seen

  • Feelings of fear and anxiety
  • Blaming oneself or others
  • Insomnia, inappetence
  • Trembling, nausea, other physical symptoms

Often, the person needs to retell and repeat what happened several times. The people around them may find it hard to bear. It is important to remember that the repetition helps to clear the head, to organise, process, and understand what happened. Support from others helps a great deal.

In this phase, the person begins to realise what has happened. They no longer doubt that the event actually happened, they understand that the changes and losses brought on by the event are real. The person is preparing to confront their new circumstances.

Commonly seen:

  • Problems with memory and concentration
  • Irritability
  • Avoiding social interactions

In the processing phase, the person starts to reassess their own changed identity, personal beliefs and convictions. They begin to think about the future. This is where the grieving really begins.

In this phase, the event has become a part of the person’s life and their being. The person can live with what happened, without it being constantly on their mind. The pain re-emerges from time to time, but they are capable of feeling joy as well. Although the event has become a part of their life, it no longer controls their emotions and thoughts. The events of the crisis do not go away without a trace, some things may temporarily remind them of difficult times or the event and cause anxiety or difficult feelings. Life after the crisis may seem more vulnerable, because the person knows what could happen, but they may also have discovered a new strength or new conviction in themselves, which make them feel even more confident.

If the events that triggered the crisis have had a significant effect or if traumatic events have occurred previously in the person’s life, recovery may be a long process. People often begin to avoid things that have to do with traumatic events, but intrusive and unexpected feelings, imaginations, or memories may emerge. In these cases, trauma therapy can be of help. Various techniques for making oneself feel better can also be used. Read about the techniques here

How to support a loved one in crisis

After experiencing something tragic, talking about it often helps. You are already helping a lot when you offer to listen. People do not usually expect others to offer solutions or advice, but rather an opportunity to share their thoughts and emotions.

Being able to give your time to the other person is the most helpful. People are often afraid to disturb a person who is going through a crisis, for fear of saying the wrong thing or rubbing salt in the wound. Saying the wrong thing is not nearly as bad as feeling alone and deserted.

It should also be considered that not everyone is willing to talk about their feelings. In that case, offering to do something together can also be helpful. Help with specific things, such as doing the shopping or helping with some other daily task can also be offered.

  • Listening
  • Being present
  • Helping with daily tasks
  • Keeping up hope
  • Letting the other person know that you have time for them now and will also have time for them in the future
  • Helping them seek professional help if necessary

The reactions experienced and expressed whilst dealing with a crisis can be rather frightening or difficult to witness. Still, they are a part of the adaptation process and thus good for something. People deal with crises in very different ways, but a large part of them require support from others in order to adapt more successfully.

When a family member has to go through a crisis or the event involves the whole family, it is important that members of the family talk about it. It is also important to encourage smaller children to talk about their thoughts and emotions. In that case, the crisis can strengthen the bond between family members. Each member may have their own means of facilitating the recovery. For example, the family may depend on friends and relatives for support. Significant help can also be found outside the home, for example when children can participate in hobby groups and interact with other important adults in their lives.

Professional help should be sought when:

  • Sleep disorders or insomnia occur
  • The will to live is gone
  • One has grown distant from their friends
  • There are longer-term difficulties with memory and concentration
  • The consumption of alcohol or other stimulants increases
  • Nausea, chest pain, other pain, or unexplained physical symptoms occur
  • There is no one to talk to

When a child or young person is going through a crisis, they need more support from adults than normal.

-Let the young person know that you are aware of what happened. When they return to school / their hobby group, they may be wondering if others know what happened, which causes extra stress. Let them know that you are ready if they need help or someone to talk to.

– Be attentive. You may be the first person to notice that the young person is having difficulties. Pay attention to changes in their behaviour, which could become more outgoing or more reticent.

-Be patient. People who are going through a crisis sometimes react in an aggressive or irritated manner, by denying what happened. At attempt should be made to understand and to discuss it.

-Help preserve the daily routine. It is important to let them know that life goes on (whilst not minimising the impact of the event). Especially in cases where the event has to do with the home, it is important for the other aspects of life to go on as usual, for there to be certainty that, for example, everything at school is proceeding according to plan. Friends of the young person who is going through a crisis can also be encouraged to involve them in their usual activities, in addition to listening and being there for them.

-Pay attention to their basic needs. Ask the young person if they are sleeping, eating, moving, if they are managing to take care of personal hygiene. A crisis can exhaust a person so much that they neglect taking care of their basic needs, which would help to promote recovery.

-Be flexible. Although returning to everyday life helps to promote recovery, you should be flexible and consider that part of a person’s mental resources is spent on processing the event and adapting. This may necessitate being more lenient with them for a time in activities which require concentration or making an effort to remember things, making big decisions and plans.

-When you notice changes and see that the young person is in need of help, help them find it. Talk to their parents and supporting specialist, look into options for trauma therapy. Contact the counsellors at for advice.