Crisis Guides & Articles

Kaia Koglin
Last updated:
Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical Editor

What is a Crisis?

A crisis is a time of intense difficulty or danger. It’s generally sudden and unexpected, such as a natural disaster or a car accident.

From a mental health point of view, a crisis can also be a person’s reaction to an event. Divorce and illness can cause a life crisis, as can internal conflicts or issues.

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Signs of a mental health crisis can include:

  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Decreased performance in school or work
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Neglect of personal hygiene
  • Changes in mood
  • Withdrawal from relationships and pastimes
  • A sense of intense mental and emotional distress 1

The lack of official diagnostic criteria makes it difficult to find statistics about how many people experience mental health crises each year, but experts say these crises are common, normal, and often healthy. A crisis can make people reevaluate their life and examine what makes them happy. It’s often the catalyst for positive life changes.

However, a crisis can also be difficult or even dangerous and lead to self-harm or suicidal ideation. This is most noticeable with people who already have a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. For someone who’s already in a negative headspace, proposed solutions for a current crisis may seem negative or difficult to adopt.

What is a Midlife Crisis?

The term midlife crisis was first coined in 1965 by Canadian psychologist Elliot Jaques. He described it as when "the first phase of adult life has been lived" and changing circumstances make adjustments necessary. 2

Essentially, a midlife crisis is a time when adults contemplate their mortality and how long they have left to enjoy life. There can be specific triggers for a midlife crisis, such as relationship stress, children leaving home, retirement, and a recent loss. For some people, there’s no specific cause. It’s just a feeling that life didn’t turn out as expected, or that they haven’t achieved what they wanted to. Hormones can impact a midlife crisis, especially for women going through the first stages of menopause.

Signs of a midlife crisis can include:

  • Self-reflection
  • Boredom
  • Feeling passionless
  • Sense of loss, especially of the idea of who you wanted to be
  • Feeling old

Research about midlife crises remains limited. A 2004 study found that only 10 to 20% of people experience one. 3 Modern studies have found that one in three people over 60 will have some type of later-life crisis. 4 Despite this, a recent study has found that for most people, happiness continues to increase into middle age. 5

What is a Quarter-Life Crisis?

Similar to a midlife crisis, a quarter-life crisis occurs when a person is questioning the direction of their life. It’s often experienced in the mid-20s to early-30s and can last for a few years. 6 A quarter-life crisis often makes someone question how they’ll get to the midpoint of their life.

Anecdotally, quarter-life crises are common among people who had a clear idea of what they wanted to do with their life. When they achieve their goal and discover it’s not for them, it triggers the crisis. Other causes include comparisons with peers who are achieving milestones and disillusionment with the adult world.

What is an Existential Crisis?

An existential crisis is one that’s rooted in a person’s life purpose, direction, or spirituality. Both midlife and quarter-life crises are types of existential crises. 7 Although the term is relatively recent, references to the dark night of the soul go back centuries and seem to describe this phenomenon. 8

A random thought that starts a spiral into deeper questions of life can cause an existential crisis. Unexpected calamities, such as war, illness, or the death of a loved one, can also trigger these feelings.

Existential crises seem to be more common in people with certain mental health illnesses, including schizophrenia. 9 Professional assistance can help people move through the crisis.

What is an Identity Crisis?

A person’s identity is who they are and encompasses memories, experiences, relationships, and values. 10 Humans usually define their own identity, but it can be greatly impacted by the view of others. An identity crisis is a period when that personal sense of identity becomes unstable. 11

Big events that change how a person sees themselves often cause an identity crisis. Family changes, such as marriage, divorce, or becoming a parent, can provoke this sort of crisis. Other triggers include retirement, loss of a job, moving, and physical or mental illness. An identity crisis can lead to feeling lost, insecure, or worthless. 11 At the most extreme, it can cause depression. 12

What is Crisis Intervention?

Crisis intervention is a short-term therapeutic technique that aims to reduce the potential long-term harm of a crisis. It’s intended to interrupt a spiral into poor mental health and help a person return to their mental baseline. Therapists use crisis intervention, as do mental health helplines, such as suicide hotlines.

Numerous studies have confirmed the positive effects of crisis intervention. 13 One found that crisis intervention reduces repeat admissions for those with severe mental illness. 14 A more recent study found that crisis intervention reduced the mental health crisis associated with COVID-19 pandemic. 15

What is Crisis Management?

While crisis intervention is a useful tool, it’s not a replacement for ongoing help provided by crisis management. Everyone has different needs based on the crisis that they’re experiencing. Crisis management care can include:

  • Additional therapy
  • Help to end the crisis
  • Access to other mental health resources
  • Residential in-patient crisis care

Crisis management can also refer to a more systematic approach that helps to limit the number and intensity of crises that people experience. This can include access to support before a crisis, access to crisis care, providing quality treatment during the crisis, and providing support services after the crisis.

Best Treatment for Crisis-Related Issues

There are a number of crisis intervention models that focus on defining the problem, providing support, and making plans to overcome the crisis. From a professional standpoint, seeing a psychologist with specialized training is the best option. 16 Long-term treatment may include therapy and/or medication, depending on the crisis and its effects.

People can also take steps to help themselves through a crisis. 17 Effective strategies include:

  • Prioritizing time by focusing on what’s important
  • Reframing the crisis to see it as an opportunity
  • Finding support from friends, families, and professionals
  • Managing stress
  • Looking after personal health through proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep

If you or someone you love is going through a crisis, find help treating a crisis-related problem today.