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Crisis reactions


A crisis is a serious event that can be experienced as uncontrollable and/or overpowering, where our normal reactions are affected. Examples of crisis situations related to the workplace are accidents, serious illness or an employee's death, staff redundancies, fire, assault, theft and harassment. Examples of situations outside work that can lead to an employee suffering a crisis are; illness or death of a loved one; changes in the family situation; drug abuse; crime and accidents.

Whether an event should lead to a state of crisis or not, does not depend solely on the nature of the event or situation but also on how those affected experience and react to the incident. The victims may already be in a vulnerable situation or have experienced traumatic events earlier in their life. We all react differently and situations perceived as a crisis by one person can be perceived as threatening but manageable by another.

How managers, colleagues and others react and act when met with the victim of a crisis situation has great significance for how the possibilities for managing the crisis unfold.  It is very important for the victim to be taken seriously and to be seen, heard and respected.

Crisis reactions - normal reactions to an abnormal situation

People react differently in a crisis situation. To know what to expect from your own reactions after having been through a serious event can be a comfort. It can be an advantage knowing that these reactions are completely natural and, as a rule, they will pass. These reactions may occur immediately or after a period of time. One moment, what has happened can seem like a dream and in the next moment, painfully real. Reactions normally diminish gradually as you get the opportunity to reflect upon, understand and process the experience. Below are some examples of common reactions.

  • Anguish, anxiety and fear. It may be difficult to be alone and your body may feel restless and anxious.
  • Physical discomfort such as nausea, dizziness, muscle pain, headaches, stomach problems, arrhythmia, tremors, sweating, weakness, loss of appetite etc.
  • Flashbacks and harrowing memories. All sensory input is collected and re-lived in both a waking state and while sleeping.
  • Sleep disorders such as difficulty sleeping, nightmares etc., are common.
  • Memory and concentration problems. Your train of thought may be constantly interrupted by memories or thought about the event.
  • Despair and feelings of guilt, where you fixate on things you did or did not do.
  • Grief/depression. Bereavement, pain, yearning and crying are particularly pronounced reactions for people who have lost a loved one.
  • Irritation and anger that is often directed towards helpers, family and friends.
  • Past traumas are brought to the surface. In this case it can be a good idea to seek counselling.
  • Relationships to others may suffer as the person affected becomes isolated. The initial attention from people around you can be intense, but may also unfortunately be short-lived. It is important that friends are aware that the need for support may exist for a long period.

Crisis phases

Despite the individual variations there are common elements to crisis situations. They are usually called crisis phases.

The shock phase – This phase is usually described in terms such as surreal, confusing, panic and not being able to take in what is happening or an inability to react. This phase does not usually last very long, everything from a split second up to a few days.

The reaction phase - The shock phase is usually followed by a reaction phase when the victim starts to realise what has happened, step by step or in full force. Strong emotions surface and cannot be restrained. Despair, anxiety, guilt, sadness, rage, exhaustion and other physical symptoms are all normal reactions.

The processing phase - This phase involves the victim, in a more conscious way, beginning to take in and process what has happened in a more methodical fashion. The emotional and physical reactions begin to subside. The victim is no longer completely engrossed in the traumatic event but instead experiences short periods, that in time become longer, where they can let go of what happened, which makes it possible for recovery to begin.

The reorientation phase - The painful event is now part of life, not forgotten but no longer an open wound.  One is able to increasingly focus attention and energy forward, to a life that can never be the same as before but that can, nevertheless be manageable and meaningful.

Considerations for those who have suffered from a crisis

Enlist the help of friends and family.
Talk about what has happened and how you feel. Each time that you put your feelings into words is an opportunity to process what has happened. Accept your reactions as normal expressions to abnormal events. Sometimes it may be difficult for friends to make contact for fear of not knowing what to say. If you have the energy to make contact with your friends and other important people around you, this may help.

Stick to your normal routines.
It is an advantage to return to work as soon as possible in order to get back into normal routines. Doing so creates security and reduces the risk of becoming isolated. Accept that your normal energy levels will be lower for a while and do not put too much pressure on yourself.

Take care of yourself.
Take care of yourself by eating and sleeping well. It is not unusual to lose your appetite, but it is important to fill your nutritional needs. Soup or filmjölk [soured milk] usually work. Physical exercise is good as it allows you to sleep better and any tension in your muscles recede. You also have the opportunity to "disconnect" from your thoughts and from your sadness. Be careful with sedatives and avoid alcohol. Alcohol intensifies depression during periods of grief and often leads to negative experiences.

Seek support.
Whether it is a temporary crisis or something more prolonged and severe, it is always good to be observant and conscious and not to be reluctant to seek help and support. If you experience initial problems coping with your work, it is important to contact your supervisor or Human Resources Manager in order to relieve the work situation.  Putting too much pressure on yourself can make it harder to process the crisis. Do not be afraid to seek professional help.


Page manager: monika.rissanen@liu.se
Last updated: 2012-12-05