Overcome a crisis
"You have to treat yourself with care and love"

The tell-tale signs of a crisis differ from person to person. Not only that, but all of us – and young people in particular – have our own unique ways of dealing with feelings of hopelessness. In this interview, Birgit Schmid from SWICA's Psychology specialist unit discusses the most important questions relating to personal lows.

Ms Schmid, how can we tell when we are struggling mentally?

There's no simple answer to that question, because it differs from person to person. A crisis can manifest itself through mental symptoms, physical complaints or difficulty forming interpersonal relationships. The most common mental symptoms or complaints that some, but not all of us, might experience in a crisis include feelings of anxiety, panic or helplessness.

Tension and agitation prevent us from relaxing properly. We also often feel on edge. It doesn't take much to cause our mood to plummet (again). But the way we think is also impaired. We see the world around us in black and white, with no differentiation between people and situations. It becomes almost impossible to tell good from bad, or right from wrong. Our thoughts become trapped in an almost inescapable cycle. We struggle to concentrate, which can make learning and working difficult.

People who are experiencing a crisis are often agitated and disorganised. This makes them seem erratic and uncoordinated, or even aggressive. Displacement activities are common, which seem absurd to outsiders. These can include cleaning your home, for example, after being told that someone close to you has passed away. In extreme cases you might start having suicidal thoughts, or become violent towards objects or other people.

How does this behaviour affect those around us?

The mental consequences of a crisis also cause our interpersonal relationships to suffer. We withdraw from our friendship groups or families, and isolate ourselves. We often don't feel like doing the things we enjoyed before the crisis occurred. We aren't understood by those around us, and we don't understand them either. This exacerbates our social isolation.

Does a crisis also trigger physical symptoms?

Yes, it also affects our bodies. People in crisis situations feel very tired and/or discouraged. They usually have trouble sleeping. They also experience stomach and/or intestinal problems. Headaches and/or dizziness are often reported. Their heart rates can go up, and they can shake or struggle to breathe. Their entire musculoskeletal system can start to give them problems. Their appetite is also often decreased or increased, which usually causes them to lose or gain weight.

Young people in crisis situations sometimes have to deal with their own intense emotional responses. Birgit Schmid, Psychology Specialist Unit at SWICA

How can we overcome crises?

People face difficult situations throughout their lives, and dealing with these challenges gives them the life experience they need to cope with each new crisis. But how well a crisis can be dealt with, or how intense or challenging it is perceived to be, depends on how quickly help is available to the person in question. Our ability to help ourselves in a crisis is as crucial here as assistance from others.

How do we do that?

We need to be aware of what we have experienced or what we are currently experiencing. We should view our situation not just in rational terms, but also from an emotional perspective. This establishes a link between the situation as we perceive it and the feelings we associate with it, which is helpful when it comes to processing a crisis.

If you are still in the crisis situation, you need to leave it as soon as possible. It is important to go to a place where you feel safe and protected. You don't need to be a hero. You just need to treat yourself with care and love.

You should also reach out to someone you trust. That isn't always easy on account of our tendency to shut others out in crisis situations. But a positive connection with someone who cares about us and keeps us grounded is important in order to overcome the crisis.

You must seek professional help if you are unable to overcome a crisis by yourself. The earlier this help is given, the sooner the crisis can be overcome. It doesn't have to be psychotherapy, but the support should be temporary and tailored to the situation as you experience it. It also requires a proactive attitude on the part of the person providing the support.

What about young people? How can we support them in a crisis?

Young people often lack the life experience that adults have gained. During puberty in particular, their brains are still maturing which is why their behaviour is heavily influenced by the limbic system (the seat of our core emotions). Young people in crisis situations sometimes have to deal with their own intense emotional responses. They are more reliant than adults on help from others in order to successfully overcome a crisis.

This is where their parents or other important role models who keep them grounded and give them guidance come in. It is not always easy, because puberty makes young people want to increasingly distance themselves from their parents. This makes it all the more important for parents to offer their children understanding in crisis situations. Accusations, blame and lectures are counterproductive. You shouldn't force them to open up. It's much better to wait for the opportunity to present itself.

When talking to them, you should give them hope and confidence that a good solution can be found or that the situation can improve. The best way to help them is to make sure that their daily routine changes as little as possible. This means that, if possible, they should keep going to school or attending their training, and also keep up their hobbies and leisure activities. Both parents should be on the same page.

As with adults, however, young people may need professional help in order to overcome a crisis. Instead of psychotherapy, municipal youth workers can also offer valuable support.


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