The Four Stages of an Emotional Crisis

28 November, 2020
The stages of an emotional crisis are the different phases that occur during the process of trying to overcome a situation that's perceived as confusing and threatening. These types of situations are best addressed and resolved with professional help.

The stages of an emotional crisis are normal phases in the process of trying to regain balance. A critical situation isn’t resolved overnight but involves going through a series of steps before being able to find a complete resolution.

Each of the stages of an emotional crisis contains a set of responses that, although, in principle, aren’t the most appropriate actions, do correspond to a normal way of reacting. They’ll prevent us from forcing situations or reactions, and they’ll allow things to flow naturally when our intervention isn’t necessary.

In this type of crisis, the person is so greatly affected that the situation doesn’t only involve their emotions, but also their cognition and behavior. Under these conditions, it’s difficult for a person to think clearly, find solutions, or be helpful to others. We’re now going to see what the stages of an emotional crisis are.

“Crises polish your life. In them, you discover who you really are.”

-Allan K. Chalmers-

An anxious man.

1. Paralysis, the first stage of an emotional crisis

The main characteristic of an emotional crisis is that it creates a situation in which there’s an unexpected change that brings instability and uncertainty for the future. In the case of emotional crises, there are one or several realities that cause a subjective shock and that momentarily overburden our capacity to react.

The first stage of an emotional crisis is paralysis, which is a healthy defense mechanism. In nature, animals always remain still when they feel they’re in danger, especially an unknown danger. Paralysis is an expression of bewilderment, mainly because of the suddenness of the situation.

2. Uncertainty

After that first moment of stupor, what ensues is a state of uncertainty, which is characterized by the presence of anguish and anxiety. The person begins to understand what’s happening but focuses more on the magnitude of the threat than the tools to deal with it.

At this point, confused anxiety arises. This is closely linked to feelings of disorientation, difficulty in pinpointing emotions, confused ideas, and limited awareness. There’s a sensation of feeling lost and, at the same time, threatened by what’s going on.

3. Intrusion and withdrawal

Within the stages of an emotional crisis, the intrusion phase doesn’t always occur, although it does in many cases. This experience appears mainly in cases of more intense crises. It’s characterized by the appearance of irrational fears and a sharpening of the feelings of anguish.

What happens during this stage is that the person withdraws and doesn’t take action. They think constantly about the crisis that they’re experiencing. By doing so, they start to overestimate the seriousness of the problem and fill their minds with all sorts of disastrous scenarios. In addition to that, they feel a total incapacity to do anything about them.

So-called “intrusive thoughts” appear. These are images or ideas that come to the person’s mind suddenly and involuntarily. They’re unpleasant and frightening thoughts which the person wants to keep at bay, but can’t. This is the most acute phase in the process of dealing with an emotional crisis.

An anxious woman.

4. Elaboration and resolution

It’s very difficult to get through an emotional crisis without some form of external intervention. Sometimes it’s a friend, a book, some advice, or a therapist.

This intervention is the decisive factor that marks the transit from the state of shock to another state that will allow the person to work through what’s happened and process it correctly.

Some sort of external factor is needed to express the discomfort the person is experiencing, and this usually takes a verbal form. This can either be oral or written and is an ideal mechanism to begin to order your ideas, emotions, and perceptions. Expressing the situation verbally is a fundamental tool in being able to grasp it and begin to understand it.

The person needs to let go of the pain and start to consciously process the situation. When they do this, it’s possible to build a more realistic idea of what’s happened, and also to identify the tools available to deal with it.

These can be your own personal tools and abilities or external ones. After this “elaboration” comes the resolution, and this is when a person recovers a healthy emotional perspective.

In many cases, without specialized help, a person can be trapped for a long time in one of the earlier stages of an emotional crisis. Seeing a psychologist in this type of situation is a valid option, as they’ll provide valuable support in order to carry out the process more quickly and healthily.

González de Rivera y Revuelta, J. L. (2001). Psicoterapia de la crisis. Revista de la Asociación Española de Neuropsiquiatría, (79), 35-53.