Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2006;74(7):1165-1167

See related article on crisis management.

What is a crisis?

A crisis is when you feel you cannot cope with something. You might feel that an event is out of your control or that it is dangerous for your physical or emotional health.

What causes a crisis?

Any event can cause a crisis. Some examples are life changes (like having a baby or retiring) or things that upset you (like a car crash, being raped, or being in a hurricane or earthquake). Medical problems (like a heart attack, depression, or cancer) and emotional problems (like troubles in a relationship) also can cause a crisis.

How do I know if I am having a crisis?

If you are having a crisis you may feel anxious or panicked. Some people have symptoms like an upset stomach or headaches. Some people feel tired. You might try to cope with your feelings in unhealthy ways, like denying that the problem exists, having negative thoughts, avoiding other people, abusing alcohol, or using illegal drugs.

What should I do if I feel overwhelmed?

It is important to keep yourself and others safe. If you think that you may be at risk of injury, go to a safe place. If you feel like hurting or killing yourself or others, get help right away. Call your doctor or dial 9-1–1, or go to the nearest hospital emergency room.

How can I cope with a crisis?

Here are some tips that can help you cope with a crisis:

  • Stay calm. Breathe deeply and relax your muscles. This can make you less anxious and help you to think more clearly. If you still have trouble staying calm, tell your doctor. He or she may give you some medicine to help. Don’t use alcohol or illegal drugs. They can keep you from dealing with the problem.

  • Get support from your friends and family. You could also try things like exercise and hobbies. Staying busy can help anxiety and depression and stop you from feeling alone.

  • Face the problem. Instead of avoiding it, take action to solve it.

  • Think positively. Try not to focus on the worst things that can happen, because this can make you feel more anxious. Instead, think about the things you can do about the problem. Tell yourself “I can get through this,” and remind yourself to take it one step at a time.

  • Make a short list of steps you can take to fix the crisis. Write your steps down here:

  • Step 1:____________________________________

    __________________________________________

  • Step 2:____________________________________

    __________________________________________

  • Step 3:____________________________________

    __________________________________________

    __________________________________________

Talk about your steps with a close friend, a family member, or your doctor. Begin to carry out your steps, and make changes to your plan as needed.

  • Learn from your crisis. A crisis may cause problems, but it also can help you to grow. Think about what you have learned from the crisis so that you can cope better in the future.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

National Mental Health Information Center

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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