What is a crisis?

Take a moment to reflect on how you'd define the word ‘crisis’ — you may find it helps to write it down.

It’s tempting to make assumptions about the meaning of words like ‘crisis’. It’s often used to imply disaster or catastrophe. It can mean this, but not necessarily. Veronica Coulshed (1998) wrote that: 'Teams talk about crises when they mean that an urgent referral has come in or that they can only 'do crisis work', that is engage in minimal activity because of overwork.' In other words, what might really be meant here is that a high volume of work needs to be prioritised in terms of response and allocation. Although a crisis might entail drama, panic and chaos, what emerges on closer scrutiny is the highly subjective nature of both the identification of a crisis, and the experience of being in crisis.

Now lets compare your definition of ‘crisis’ with definitions offered in the literature on crisis intervention. Rapoport (1970) states that:

'A crisis is an upset in a steady state.'

Pierson and Thomas (2002) are a little more specific, suggesting that, “(a crisis) is precipitated by hazardous events which may be a single catastrophe or a series of mishaps…(crises) may be brought about by something external to the person or by something that appears rooted in him or her.”

Some life events are so dramatic they would create a crisis for most people — for example the death of a loved one, the sudden onset of illness, an accident or physical assault. However, even in these cases, although there may be some common patterns of response across the population as a whole, individuals will vary significantly in their reactions. Whether a particular individual perceives a specific life event to be a crisis or not, will be highly subjective and influenced by unique biographical experiences and particular ego strengths.

Personal experience of crisis

Before we explore crisis theory in detail, take a little time to reflect on your own personal experience of a crisis. It doesn't need to be a dramatic event, but should reflect a time of urgency, disorganisation and confusion. Now make some notes on this experience addressing the following questions:

  • What was the nature of the crisis?
  • What helped?
  • What didn't help?
  • How did the situation move on or settle?
  • Did this experience remind you of a previous life event?

What feelings were engendered by this activity? Was it easy to analyse the event? Does your response to this time of crisis feel familiar? Can you identify a pattern to your management of such events? If you’re undertaking this activity as part of a class, try comparing your notes with those of your colleagues. Given the findings of research into responses to crises it’s likely you’ll discover that responses to change are often unique and depend on a wide variety of factors. Moving house might create a crisis for me, but not for you!