Traumatic crises

A traumatic crisis is caused by a sudden, unexpected and intense incident. The event produces a significant emotional shock that temporarily overwhelms the individual. Traumatic crisis is a reaction to an event which threatens the essential aspects of life.

A crisis may be traumatic for many reasons; for example, the death of a loved one, suicide in the family, serious illness or disability, termination of employment or being subjected to violence may lead to the wounding of the psyche. In addition, accidents and disasters involving large groups of people can result in traumatic crises. Processing and handling a traumatic crisis is often painful, hard work. 

Going through and handling a traumatic crisis is often painful and laborious. Howevery everyone has different abilities to help cope with crisesRead more about methods of coping. You can seek help and support in many different places: local crisis centre, occupational health care or your own town's on-duty social and crisis service.  

Factors causing crises

Different kinds of events and situations in life can lead to crises. Typical factors causing crises are listed below. 

  • Death of a close-one 
  • Suicide
  • Serious illness – personal or a person close to the individual  
  • Loss of independence or self-control due to an injury, for example 
  • Matters causing shame or confusion among the surrounding people and community, such as driving under the influence or imprisonment
  • Unemployment
  • Financial difficulties
  • Accidents, such as traffic accidents or fires
  • Experiencing natural disasters or catastrophes
  • Violence, such as domestic, sexual or street violence
  • Being subject to robbery, burglary or attack
  • Feeling of threat; for example, fear of experiencing violence
  • So-called close-calls, where the life or health of the individual or someone close to him/her has been threatened
  • Problems concerning parenthood, such as infertility, miscarriage or the illness or disability of a child
  • Matters concerning personal relationships, such as divorce or infidelity
  • Moving to another country or town

The phases of traumatic crisis

Shock phase

The shock phase follows immediately after the event which triggered the crisis. During the shock phase, the person is not yet able to comprehend the event that caused the crisis and may even deny it. While some people in shock become completely paralysed, others behave in a mechanical and cold way. Some people in shock may become strongly agitated; they may scream or cry furiously. People may also alternate between paralysis and restlessness. The reactions of people in shock, such as apparent lack of feelings, may confuse the people close to them and even cause resentment. 

The shock phase may include: 
  • denial
  • emotional shutdown
  • feeling surreal and like an outsider
  • shouting, crying and panic

Reactions during the shock phase may seem scary and strange. However, they play an important role in protecting the psyche and life: severe shock cannot be understood within a short time period. Thus, the shock phase allows time to face what has happened. Usually people in shock need concrete safety and a feeling that the people around them are in control of the situation. The incident should be discussed in a calm manner. One should keep in mind that people in shock rarely remember what they have been told, as their ability to absorb information has been weakened. Therefore, others should speak in a calm, clear and simple manner. 

Reaction phase

The shock phase is followed by the reaction phase; during the reaction phase, the person will slowly face the tragic incident and try to understand what has happened and what it means. At the beginning of the reaction phase, people often experience strange and unexpected sensations; for example, they may feel that the person they have lost is still around or they may hear their voice somewhere. The human mind is still in denial and these strange sensations are a part of the process.

The person in the reaction phase needs a listener, as well as concrete instructions and support to cope with everyday life. At this point in the crisis, the person is about to start processing what has happened and he/she balances between protecting themselves from the unbearable experience and processing it. During the reaction phase, the incident that caused the crisis will often recur as memories both while awake and asleep. The incident may suddenly return to mind as very vivid images, triggered, for example, by a certain smell or sound, or they may simply return during a normal conversation. At first, the incident may present itself as a nightmare but later the dreams will become more diverse.

The feelings of people in the reaction phase are often very similar to each other and they are often expressed in the same form: "I think I’m going crazy", "I can’t take it any more", "will I ever make it through?", "life feels like a rollercoaster", or "will this pain last forever?", for example. 

The reaction phase may include:
  • fear and anxiety
  • self-accusations and the need to find someone to blame
  • insomnia and loss of appetite
  • tremor, nausea and other physical symptoms 

During the reaction phase of a crisis, people often feel the need to be heard. They may feel the need to discuss the matter over and over again. This may feel very heavy and consuming to the people close to the individual. One should keep in mind that talking plays a significant part in the recovery process: it helps in understanding what has happened, it is easier to face the feelings once they are properly identified, experiences may be shared, peer support may be received, and talking makes it easier for others to understand the behaviour of the individual. Moreover, talking allows the person to examine the situation from different points of view, as well as to acknowledge the significance of the situation. 

Processing phase 

In the processing phase, the person begins to understand what has happened. The matter is no longer denied; instead, the person understands that the incident and all its changes and losses are really true. The person is ready to face all the different aspects of the incident and the new personal situation. 

The processing phase may include:
  • problems with memory and concentration
  • irritability
  • withdrawal from social relationships 

During the processing phase, the person is aware of the changes caused by the crisis and often begins to analyse his/her own identity and personal convictions and beliefs. He/she begins to think beyond the event but will not yet have strength to plan the future. Nevertheless, the person is preparing to face the future. During the processing phase, those who have lost someone close to them are ready to do the actual grief work (read more about traumatic grief). 

Reorientation phase

During reorientation, what has happened slowly becomes a part of everyday life and the identity. The person is able to live with what has happened, and it is no longer constantly on his/her mind. Every once in a while, the pain will resurface but there is also joy in life; the person will be able to look to the future and regain confidence in life.

The event becomes a significant part of his/her life story but it will no longer control feelings and thoughts. It will no longer strain one's mental health; instead, it may have made the person even stronger than before. Nevertheless, the course of a crisis is not straightforward; for example, things reminding of the incident can bring back heavy thoughts, anxiety and other symptoms.

Many people who have experienced a very difficult crisis say that they have changed: they say they found resources they never knew existed in them. Life after the crisis may seem more vulnerable, but also much more meaningful than before.

Trauma work

If the event that led to the crisis is particularly exceptional and mentally damaging, or if the person is otherwise mentally vulnerable when faced with the shocking event, recovery may prove to be complicated and heavy. Sometimes life must be pieced back together from a new perspective and this may take time.

It is typical to trauma work to avoid handling the matter and avoid things that remind of the event. On the other hand, upsetting images can return suddenly and uninvited. Outside professional help is often needed during the process. 

Read more about seeking help
Read more about grief

Supporting a person in crisis

When someone close has experienced something tragic, he/she may feel the need to talk about it over and over again. Simply being there and listening will help the person close to you to handle the crisis. You can ask the person how he/she is feeling. You should avoid giving straight solutions and rather allow the other to tell about his/her feelings. Talking is a sign that the person in crisis is ready to handle the matter and to share his/her feelings with others.

The most important thing is to contact the person in crisis and to offer your time. Far too often the people close to the person in crisis do not have the courage to face him/her as they are afraid they might say something wrong, for example. However, inappropriate expressions of support are more welcome than the feeling of abandonment and confusion which occurs when the people around the individual disappear right when he/she needs them the most.

Many of those who have experienced crises say that they appreciated the concrete help offered by others. When they are too tired to go to the store, it feels good to cook together with a close friend. Concrete actions, such as cleaning and cooking, allow the chance to discuss the difficult matters on the side.

You can support a person close to you suffering from a crisis:

  • by listening
  • by being around
  • by helping in everyday life
  • by maintaining hope
  • by showing that you have the time now and in the future
  • by helping the person seek professional help, if necessary

Help and support in a crisis

Strong reactions and symptoms, as well as feeling that one is going crazy or loosing one’s mind, following the tragic incident, can be scary. Nevertheless, these feelings are common and a part of the so-called normal reaction.

It is important to understand that people handle crises in different ways; however, most people need support from others at some point during the process. Talking about the incident plays a significant part in the recovery process.

When the crisis affects the whole family, it is important that each family member is allowed to talk about his/her feelings, including fears and difficult feelings. If the difficult issues are swept under the rug, the ensuing silence may have a negative effect on the family for many years to come.

A shocking incident experienced by a family member or the entire family may also bring the family closer together. If the family members are able to support each other, giving them the chance to speak about their experiences, the family members may become closer to each other than before. The incident that triggered the crisis may become a part of the family’s own history, strengthening family bonds.

Each family has its own strengths and resources that help in handling crises. For example, some families may have many friends and relatives who may also show support. Some families discuss all matters and seek their own methods of problem-solving and coping. Sometimes children have several things outside the home, such as hobbies or important adults other than their parents, to help maintain their recovery.

If necessary, people in crisis should seek professional help in, for example, crisis centres, occupational health care or the health care centre. It is extremely important to seek outside professional help if you notice that you or someone close to you is suffering from the following symptoms:

  •     Having trouble sleeping
  •     Loosing the will to live
  •     Isolation from friends
  •     Prolonged troubles in concentration and problems with memory
  •     Increased use of alcohol or other substances
  •     Prolonged depression, anxiety and tension
  •     Nausea, chest pains, other unexplained physical symptoms
  •     When there is no one to talk to