Stress, Crisis, and Trauma: Supporting Individuals in Distress
Dr. Meagan Corrado
We live in a world where stress, crisis, trauma, and allostatic load abound. This article defines these terms and highlights practical strategies to support individuals as they process, navigate, and recover from distressing circumstances.
“Stress,” “crisis,” and “trauma” are often used interchangeably. Although each have an impact on individuals, communities, and systems, it is important to understand the similarities and differences between these terms. Think about stress, crisis, trauma, and chronic stress (allostatic load) as existing along a continuum. The definitions below highlight the similarities and differences between each of these terms.
Stress is a normal experience for all individuals and communities. How do we define stress? Stress is something that happens in a person’s environment that is overwhelming and that the person believes will stretch their ability to cope in a healthy way (Dulmus & Hilarski, 2003). Yeager & Roberts (2003) state that crises create “distress and functional impairment.” The individual or system’s ability to maintain stability is disrupted. Coping strategies that previously helped the individual or system no longer work.
According to Lindemann, a crisis causes an imbalance in an individual/system. A ”hazardous event” disrupts the person/system’s ability to stay balanced. This makes it difficult for them to cope in healthy ways and makes the person/system particularly vulnerable (Roberts, 1996).
Cavaiola & Colford (2006) refer to a crisis as “a time for decision-making, a turning point, or a moment of reckoning.”
Trauma is an experience that causes a person to feel afraid, overwhelmed, out of control, and broken. Trauma affects how people view themselves, others, and the world around them. Schauer, Neuner, & Elbert (2011) define trauma as a scary situation that threatens a person’s safety to the point that they are extremely afraid and their body and mind enter survival mode. According to Herman (2015), “Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of the trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force…Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning”.
Despite the chaos, stress, and trauma that many experience, the brain and body are able to re-calibrate/rebalance. Allostasis is the brain and body’s process for stabilizing itself in the face of stress and change (McEwen & Wingfield, 2003). Although allostasis helps people adapt and survive in the face of stress, crisis, and trauma, individuals can experience allostatic load if their life circumstances place too much pressure on this system. Allostasis is a protective survival mechanism, but if it is used too much, individuals can experience significant health consequences including disease, heart complications, and death.
What Can We Do?
Individuals, communities, and systems endure varying degrees of stress, crisis, trauma, and allostatic load. Many experience a combination of each of these forms of distress simultaneously. This can feel very overwhelming and can lead to negative psychological, social, and physical consequences. What can we do to support individuals experiencing distress?
Individuals experiencing crisis and trauma have been in dangerous and overwhelming situations. These situations cause them to view their relationships with others and the world as unsafe. Acknowledging the role that danger has played in individuals’ lives and counteracting this danger by providing a safe environment is essential to healthy interactions. It is important to remember that safety looks different for every person. Ask others what you can do to help them feel safe. Reflect on the people, places, and things that help you feel safe.
Empathy is important when supporting individuals who are in distress. Segal (2018) states that empathy includes interpersonal and social qualities. Interpersonal empathy is “when someone else understands what you are feeling or what you are going through and you feel ‘heard’ and validated” (Segal, 2018). Interpersonal empathy involves mirroring the person we are speaking to and stepping into their shoes. Social empathy is “the ability to understand people and other social groups by perceiving and experiencing their life situations” (Segal, 2018). Consider ways that you can support others in feeling heard and understood.
Sometimes people experiencing stress, crisis, and trauma do not have the words to describe what they are feeling inside. Helping people name their emotions can help them manage distress. Affect labeling is the process of listening to another person’s emotional experiences and reflecting back those emotions (Noll, 2017). When someone in distress reaches out to you to vent or talk about their experiences, help them identify the feeling words to describe what is happening inside.
Validation can be defined as the act of recognizing and affirming the validity or worth of a person’s emotions (Noll, 2017). When we validate others’ emotions, we help the person name the feeling and also give them permission to feel (Sorensen, 2017). Validation is important because it acknowledges the fact that each person’s feelings are real. Rejecting, invalidating, or minimizing a person’s feelings is rejecting that person’s reality (Noll, 2017). Examples of validating remarks include:
- “I understand why you feel…”
- ”What is it like for you to feel…”
- “It makes sense why you feel…”
Practice using these validating statements in your everyday conversations.
Herman, J. (2015). Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence- from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.
Creativity is essential when supporting individuals who have experienced stress, crisis, trauma, and allostatic load. Why does creativity matter in the face of distress? Creativity is an opportunity for people to infuse their emotions into an artistic medium. Whether their work of art is beautiful or ugly, the creative process allows people to explore, channel, and validate distressing emotions. Creativity also gives individuals hope. Although their current experiences may have left them feeling broken, confused, and disoriented, creativity helps them to express and organize current emotions so that they can envision a brighter future. Support others in their creative endeavors. And make space in your own life for creative expression.
Cavaiola, A. & Colford, J. (2006). A practical guide to crisis intervention. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Dulmus, C. & Hilarski, C. (2003). When stress constitutes trauma and trauma constitutes crisis: The stress-trauma-crisis continuum. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 3, 27-35.
Everstine, D. & Everstine, L. (2006). Strategic interventions for people in crisis, trauma, and disaster. New York: Routledge.
McEwen, B. & Wingfield, J. (2003). The concept of allostasis in biology and biomedicine. Hormones and Behavior, 43, 2-15.
Noll, D. (2017). De-escalate: how to calm an angry person in 90 seconds or less. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Roberts, A (ed). (1996). Crisis management and brief treatment: theory, technique, and applications. Chicago: Nelson Hall.
Schauer, M., Neuner, F., & Elbert, T. (2011). Narrative exposure therapy: a short-term treatment for traumatic stress disorders. Cambridge: Hogrefe.
Segal, E. (2018). Social empathy: The art of understanding others. New York: Columbia.
Yeager, K. & Roberts, A. (2003). Differentiating among stress, acute stress disorder, crisis episodes, trauma, and PTSD: Paradigm and treatment goals. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 3, 3-25.