What Is Crisis Counseling?

Revised: May 21, 2014


Crisis counseling is not long term and is usually no more than 1 to 3 months. The focus is  on single or recurrent problems that are overwhelming or traumatic. If a trauma or crisis is not resolved in a healthy manner, the experience can lead to more lasting psychological, social and medical problems. Crisis counseling provides education, guidance and support. Crisis Counseling is not a substitute for individuals who need and are not receiving intensive or long term psychiatric care. Crisis counseling may involve outreach, work with in a community and is not limited to office appointments. 

There are many descriptions and a great deal written about crisis intervention and crisis counseling. Regardless of the theory and author, there are universal "elements" in the process by which a crisis counselor can help people face and move past distressing and traumatic events in their lives. 

The 8 Elements of Crisis Intervention

Education. There is a natural ability within  most people to recover from a crisis provided they have the support, guidance and resources they need. The very heart of crisis intervention is to face the impact of a crisis. In most cases, a crisis involves normal reactions, which are understandable, to an abnormal situation. An effective crisis counseling provides information, activities and structure that will help us recover and move past the crisis. More importantly, crisis counseling will insure that you do not prolong a crisis and it will help insure you do not create more problems in your life and the lives of others. Confrontation through information and discussion may be an important part of crisis intervention. 

Observation and awareness. A crisis in our life can be the result of low self-awareness or not recognizing the impact our behavior has on others as well as the impact it has on our self. Increasing your awareness can lead to choices that promote recovery and wellness. You can't help yourself if you cannot see the problem and how you may be contributing to the crisis. In some cases, family dynamics and communication problems within families can prolong a crisis.

Discovering and using our potential. Every crisis represents an opportunity for personal growth and to discover our highest potential and true self.  The greatest hero in any crisis is the person who does not believe he or she is a hero, but is never-the-less prepared for the challenge by the undiscovered qualities and abilities that are only discovered when we are facing tragedy and the "inevitables" of life. While support is important, this does not mean that the person in crisis should not be allowed, encouraged and sometimes required to make decisions and take action to resolve the crisis and improve the quality of their life.

Understanding our problems. It is the fundamental intention of all people to do the best they can with the resources and abilities they have during a crisis. During any crisis, it is important to recognize or discover our true and deepest intention. You must keep your intentions in mind no matter what you do or how unskillfully you may act. While our intent is usually to make life better, our behavior can be misguided, misunderstood and less effective than we would hope. Self-understanding as well as understanding how others may keep us "stuck" are important keys to recovery.

Creating necessary structure. The most important aspect of crisis intervention and counseling is to provide a social "container" for our experience that will allow us to express, explore, examine and become active in ways that help insure the crisis is not prolonged. For each of us, there are necessary activities and routines in our life during times of distress that provide comfort and support. These do not include alcohol, medications or other drugs. Medications should only be used to prevent a physical or psychological breakdown. The purpose, duration, frequency and potential impacts of medications must be defined in order to make informed decisions.

Challenging irrational beliefs and unrealistic expectations. Few people, during times of crisis, have the necessary skills to fully examine what they are thinking, what they assume and what they expect from their self and from others. Our thoughts, especially the ones we don't look at, contribute a great deal to how we feel and what we do next in response to our feelings. 

Breaking vicious cycles and addictive behavior. Many crises are the result of vicious cycles or addictions. For example, drug and alcohol use can not only destroy our life, but it will confuse how we actually feel about our self, others and the world around us. One cannot know how they feel and what they truly want if their feelings are modified by chemicals, medications, alcohol and other drugs. A painful crisis can lead a person to avoid and escape how they feel. Unhealthy escape and avoidance of emotional pain and distress may involve the use of medication, drugs, alcohol, sex, thrill seeking, parties or working excessively. Taking the role of a "victim" can cause others to rescue a person in crisis. Prolonging the crisis by refusal to deal with a crisis can create supportive relationships. When a person becomes dependent on others and "escapes" to feel better, a vicious cycle can develop. Vicious cycles start with behaviors that are intended to avoid or escape emotional pain, but ultimately these avoidance and escape behaviors create more problems or the same problem we are trying to avoid. The behaviors found in a vicious cycle can actually prolong a crisis.  

Create temporary dependencies. During a crisis, it is often helpful to form brief relationships with others in order to gain support. Crisis counseling and intervention are very helpful and necessary.  A healthy dependency is usually temporary and will always lead to increasing independency. Unhealthy dependencies are long term and create increasing dependency rather than independency.

Facing fear and emotional pain. A crisis is usually a time of fear or sadness. How we respond is important. There is "monster" in the world for every person who "runs" in response to their fear or sadness.  When we face the darkness in our life, and we are not destroyed by our fears, or sadness, we eventually discover there are no monsters. We discover that  we can survive. In time we discover that our pain will fade. Facing emotional pain is the most healthy response. This does not mean we should make our self miserable. But we should not expend a great deal of energy and become involved in activities that help us avoid how we feel and what we think. When people suffer, it is important to help them feel less alone in the world. It is important to help people in crisis solve the problems in their life. People in emotional pain need to be empowered and supported. 

copyright 2003 to 2005, Michael G. Conner