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How Do People Typically Respond During a Crisis

by Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D.

Chairman, National Center for Emotional Wellness

CEO & Creator,

There is no standard or typical way in which people respond during a crisis. Some of us respond immediately, while others may experience a delayed reaction, sometimes months or even years down the road. Some individual’s reactions may last for a long period of time. For others, traumatic stress reactions are short-lived.

The reactions/responses that follow are frequently experienced during times of crisis. It’s important to recognize that these reactions do not necessarily represent an unhealthy response. Rather, they may be viewed as normal responses to an abnormal event.

If these reactions continue to be experienced in the future and are joined by other symptoms such as recurrent distressing dreams, flashbacks, avoidance behaviors, excessive jumpiness, or panic attacks, and interfere with social, occupational or other important areas of functioning, a trauma or stress disorder may be present. Consideration should be given to consulting with a mental health professional.

Emotional Responses may include:

• shock

• denial

• dissociation

• panic

• fear

• aloneness

• hopelessness

• helplessness

• emptiness

• uncertainty

• horror

• terror

• anger

• hostility

• irritability

• sadness

• depression

• grief

• guilt

Cognitive Responses to traumatic exposure are often reflected in:

• impaired concentration

• confusion

• disorientation

• difficulty in making a decision

• a short attention span

• suggestibility

• vulnerability

• forgetfulness

• self-blame

• blaming others

• lowered self-esteem

• thoughts of losing control

• hypervigilance

• perseverative thoughts of the traumatic event

Behavioral Responses may include:

• withdrawal

• “spacing-out”

• non-communication

• changes in speech patterns

• regressive behaviors

• erratic movements

• impulsivity

• a reluctance to abandon property

• seemingly aimless walking or pacing

• an inability to sit still

• an exaggerated startle response

• antisocial behaviors

Physiological Responses may include:

• elevated blood pressure*

• difficulty breathing*

• shock symptoms*

• chest pains*

• cardiac palpitations*

• rapid heart beat

• muscle tension and pains

• fatigue

• sleep difficulty and disturbing dreams

• fainting

• flushed face

• pale appearance

• chills

• cold clammy skin

• increased sweating

• thirst

• dizziness

• vertigo

• hyperventilation

• headaches

• grinding of teeth

• twitches

• gastrointestinal upset

* These require immediate medical evaluation.

Spiritual Responses to a traumatic incident often include:

• anger and a distancing from God

• withdrawal from attending religious services

or an uncharacteristic involvement in

religious community activity

• feelings that faith practice (e.g., prayers,

scriptures, hymns, worship, communion) is

empty and without meaning

• a questioning of one’s basic beliefs and anger

at clergy


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