A crisis (from the Greek κρίσις - krisis;[1] plural: "crises"; adjectival form: "critical") is any event that is going (or is expected) to lead to an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community, or whole society. Crises are deemed to be negative changes in the security, economic, political, societal, or environmental affairs, especially when they occur abruptly, with little or no warning. More loosely, it is a term meaning "a testing time" or an "emergency event".


Crisis is often linked to the concept of psychological stress and used to suggest a frightening or fraught experience. In general, crisis is the situation of a "complex system" (family, economy, society. Note that simple systems do not enter crises. We can speak about a crisis of moral values, an economical or political crisis, but not a motor crisis) when the system functions poorly (the system still functions, but does not break down), an immediate decision is necessary to stop the further disintegration of the system, but the causes of the dysfunction are not immediately identified (the causes are so many, or unknown, that it is impossible to take a rational, informed decision to reverse the situation).[2]

Crisis has several defining characteristics. Seeger, Sellnow, and Ulmer[3] say that crises have four defining characteristics that are "specific, unexpected, and non-routine events or series of events that [create] high levels of uncertainty and threat or perceived threat to an organization's high priority goals." Thus the first three characteristics are that the event is

1. unexpected (i.e., a surprise)
2. creates uncertainty
3. is seen as a threat to important goals
Venette[4] argues that "crisis is a process of transformation where the old system can no longer be maintained." Therefore the fourth defining quality is the need for change. If change is not needed, the event could more accurately be described as a failure.

Apart from natural crises that are inherently unpredictable (volcanic eruptions, tsunami etc.) most of the crises that we face are created by man. Hence the requirements of their being 'unexpected' depends upon man failing to note the onset of crisis conditions. Some of our inability to recognise crises before they become dangerous is due to denial and other psychological responses [5] that provide succour and protection for our emotions.

A different set of reasons for failing to notice the onset of crises is that we allow ourselves to be 'tricked' into believing that we are doing something for reasons that are false. In other words, we are doing the wrong things for the right reasons. For example, we might believe that we are solving the threats of climate change by engaging in economic trading activity that has no real impact on the climate. Mitroff and Silvers [6] posit two reasons for these mistakes, which they classify as Type 3 (inadvertent) and Type 4 (deliberate) errors.

The effect of our inability to attend to the likely results of our actions can result in crisis.

From this perspective we might usefully learn that failing to understand the real causes of our difficulties is likely to lead to repeated downstream 'blowback'. Where states are concerned, Michael Brecher, based on case studies of the International Crisis Behavior (ICB) project, suggested a different way of defining crisis as conditions are perceptions held by the highest level decision-makers of the actor concerned:[7] 1. threat to basic values, with a simultaneous or subsequent 2. high probability of involvement in military hostilities, and the awareness of 3. finite time for response to the external value threat

Chinese word for "crisis"

It is frequently said in Western motivational speaking that the Chinese word for "crisis" is composed of two Chinese characters signifying "danger" and "opportunity" respectively. This is, however, considered by linguists to be a misperception.

Political crisis


An economic crisis is a sharp transition to a recession. See for example 1994 economic crisis in Mexico, Argentine economic crisis (1999–2002), South American economic crisis of 2002, Economic crisis of Cameroon. Crisis theory is a central achievement in the conclusions of Karl Marx's critique of Capital.

A financial crisis may be a banking crisis or currency crisis.


Crises pertaining to the environment include:

Environmental disaster

An environmental disaster is a disaster that is due to human activity and should not be confused with natural disasters (see below). In this case, the impact of humans' alteration of the ecosystem has led to widespread and/or long-lasting consequences. It can include the deaths of animals (including humans) and plant systems, or severe disruption of human life, possibly requiring migration.

Natural disaster

A natural disaster is the consequence of a natural hazard (e.g. volcanic eruption, earthquake, landslide) which moves from potential into an active phase, and as a result affects human activities. Human vulnerability, exacerbated by the lack of planning or lack of appropriate emergency management, leads to financial, structural, and human losses. The resulting loss depends on the capacity of the population to support or resist the disaster, their resilience.[8] This understanding is concentrated in the formulation: "disasters occur when hazards meet vulnerability".[9] A natural hazard will hence never result in a natural disaster in areas without vulnerability, e.g. strong earthquakes in uninhabited areas.

For lists of natural disasters, see the list of disasters or the list of deadliest natural disasters.

Endangered species

An endangered species is a population of an organism which is at risk of becoming extinct because it is either few in number, or threatened by changing environmental or predation parameters. An endangered species is usually a taxonomic species, but may be another evolutionary significant unit. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has classified 38 percent of the 44,837 species assessed by 2008 as threatened.[10]


For information about crises in the field of study in international relations, see crisis management and international crisis. In this context, a crisis can be loosely defined as a situation where there is a perception of threat, heightened anxiety, expectation of possible violence and the belief that any actions will have far-reaching consequences (Lebow, 7–10).


A personal crisis occurs when an individual can no longer cope with a situation.[11] This is preceded by events of an extraordinary nature triggering extreme tension and stress within an individual, i.e., the crisis, which then requires major decisions or actions to resolve. Crises can be triggered by a wide range of situations including, but not limited to, extreme weather conditions, sudden change in employment/financial state, medical emergencies, long-term illness, and social or familial turmoil. Crises are simply a change in the events that comprise the day-to-day life of a person and those in their close circle, such as the loss of a job, extreme financial hardship, substance addiction/abuse and other situations that are life altering and require action that is outside the "normal" daily routine. A person going through a crisis experiences a state of mental disequilibrium, in which the ego struggles to balance both internal and external demands.[12] In this case, said person resorts to coping mechanisms to deal with the stress. Various coping mechanisms include:[13]

  • High emotions (crying, physical withdrawal)
  • Defence mechanisms (denial, repression)
  • Making rash decisions
  • Acting out
  • Putting things on hold

In some cases, it is difficult for an individual undergoing a crisis to adapt to the situation. As it is outside of their normal range of functioning, it is common that one endures a struggle to control emotions. This lack of control can lead to suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, trouble with the law and general avoidance of resources available for help. One such resource used to aid an individual in crisis is their social support system, which can come in the form of family, friends, coworkers, or health professionals. It is important that a support system consists of people that the individual trusts. Although these support systems play a crucial role in aiding an individual through a crisis, they are also the underlying cause of two thirds of mental health crises.[13] The aforementioned mental health crises can include marital issues, abandonment, parental conflict and family struggles.

In order to aid someone in a crisis, it is crucial to be able to identify the signs that indicate they are undergoing an internal conflict. These signs, as well as the aforementioned coping mechanisms, include:[11][14]

  • Irrational and/or narrow thinking
  • Lowered attention span
  • Unclear motives
  • Disorganized approach to problem solving
  • Resistance to communication
  • Inability to differ between large and small issues
  • Change/alteration to social networks

Ways to manage a crisis

As aforementioned, a crisis to this day can be overcome by implementing mechanisms such as: sleep, rejection, physical exercise, meditation and thinking. To assist individuals in regaining emotional equilibrium, intervention can be used. The overall goal of a crisis intervention is to get the individual back to a pre-crisis level of functioning or higher with the help of a social support group. As said by Judith Swan, there's a strong correlation between the client's emotional balance and the trust in their support system in helping them throughout their crisis.[15] The steps of crisis intervention are: to assess the situation based on behaviour patterns of the individual, decide what type of help is needed (make a plan of action) and finally to take action/intervention, based on the individual's skills to regain equilibrium.[12]

The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario proposed the ABC model for dealing with client's interventions in crises:[16]

  1. Basic attending skills (making the person comfortable, remaining calm, etc.)
  2. Identifying the problem and therapeutic interaction (explore their perceptions, identify sources of emotional distress, identify impairments in behavioural functioning, use therapeutic interactions)
  3. Coping (identify coping attempts, present alternative coping strategies, follow up post-crisis)

Benefits of listening in a crisis

Moreover, another method for helping individuals who are suffering in a crisis is active listening; it is defined as seeing circumstances from another perspective and letting the other person know that the negotiator (the helper) understands their perspective. Through this, they establish trust and rapport by demonstrating empathy, understanding and objectivity in a non-judgmental way. It is important for the negotiator to listen to verbal and non-verbal reactions of the person in need, in order to be able to label the emotion that the individual is showing. Thus, this demonstrates that the helper is tuned in emotionally. Furthermore, there are other techniques that can be used to demonstrate actively listening such as: paraphrasing, silence and reflecting or mirroring. The goal in active listening is to keep the person talking about their situation.[11]

In chaos theory

When the control parameter of a chaotic system is modified, the chaotic attractor touches an unstable periodic orbit inside the basin of attraction inducing a sudden expansion in the attractor. This phenomenon is termed as interior crisis in a chaotic system.

See also


  1. Henry George Liddell; Robert Scott. κρίσις. Perseus: A Greek-English Lexicon.
  2. Bundy, J.; Pfarrer, M. D.; Short, C. E.; Coombs, W. T. (2017). "Crises and crisis management: Integration, interpretation, and research development". Journal of Management. 43 (6): 1661–1692. doi:10.1177/0149206316680030.
  3. Seeger, M. W.; Sellnow, T. L.; Ulmer, R. R. (1998). "Communication, organization, and crisis". Communication Yearbook. 21: 231–275. doi:10.1080/23808985.1998.11678952.
  4. Venette, S. J. (2003). Risk communication in a High Reliability Organization: APHIS PPQ's inclusion of risk in decision making. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Proquest Information and Learning.
  5. Mitroff.I. (2005) Why some companies emerge stronger and better from a crisis, p36
  6. Mitroff & Silvers, (2009) Dirty rotten strategies
  7. Shlaim, Avi, The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948–1949: a study in crisis decision-making, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983, p.5
  8. G. Bankoff, G. Frerks, D. Hilhorst (eds.) (2003). Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People. ISBN 1-85383-964-7.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. B. Wisner; P. Blaikie; T. Cannon; I. Davis (2004). At Risk – Natural hazards, people's vulnerability and disasters. Wiltshire: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-25216-4.
  10. Factsheet: The IUCN Red List a key conservation tool (2008)
  11. Lanceley, F. J. (2003). On-Scene Guide for Crisis Negotiators, Second Edition (2nd ed.). London: CRC Press.
  12. Woolley, N (1990). "Crisis theory: A paradigm of effective intervention with families of critically ill people". Journal of Advanced Nursing. 15 (12): 1402–1408. doi:10.1111/1365-2648.ep8529911.
  13. Nursing Best Practice Guideline: Shaping the future of Nursing. (Electronic book). Appendix C - Assessment of coping skills and support systems. (Page 53). Executive Director: Doris Grispun, RN, MScN, PhD. Date: August 2002.
  14. Vecchi, G. M. (2009). Conflict and crisis communication. Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association, 12(2), 32-29.
  15. Swan, J., & Hamilton, P.M. (2014). Mental health crisis management. Wild Iris Medical Education, Inc.
  16. Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario. (2006). Crisis intervention. Toronto, ON: Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.

Further reading

  • Media related to Crises at Wikimedia Commons
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