The three Stages of Personality Decompensation

In medicine, decompensation is a term used to describe the functional deterioration of an organ or a body system, which may no longer be able to cope with the bodily demands. It may take place because of severe stress, infections, trauma, organ failure…etc and the manifestations of such decompensation processes could be either physical or psychological in nature. Personality is one such instance where decompensation can be demonstrated and this article will describe the three stages of personality decompensation in the face of trauma.

In relation to a traumatic event, every person seems to undergo similar stages of personality decompensation although the level at which each individual can recover or the rate at which such stages are passed could differ from one person to another. The three recognizable stages in this regard include alarm and mobilization, resistance and exhaustion.

Alarm and mobilization

One of the initial reactions towards an emergency such as a traumatic event would be that of alarm and mobilization. In such instances, the person would feel a heightened tension and sensitivity, emotional arousal, greater alertness and focused effort on gaining control over the situation as well as on one’s own self. Thus, the strategies adapted during this stage would involve coping strategies, defense strategies or a combination of the two. According to experts, this stage can be characterized by bodily symptoms such as shaking, tremors, gastrointestinal upset, inability to focus attention…etc. However, manifestations of these symptoms would mean that the person does not have the ability to cope well with the demands made on the persons adaptive resources.


The second phase of decompensation in personality could be recognized as a resistance phase where the person finds means of coping with the existing traumatic event or the stressful situation. However, during the latter part of the resistance phase, the person may show signs of decompensation and these may include distorted perception of the real world as in the case of hypersensitivity towards sounds. At the same time, the person’s ability to invent newer coping strategies may diminish over time during this stage, which means that the same coping strategies used for previous situations may be applied to newer encounters without making the necessary adjustments. This would be one reason for such people to lose their ability to cope with the existing stressors.


The third stage of personality decompensation is characterized by the exhaustion of the adaptive resources. Thus, the person may increasingly become psychologically disorganized. They may also show signs of delusions and hallucination as a result of their inability to perceive the external stimuli and their thoughts correctly. However, experts also point towards the contribution made by metabolic changes in generating these hallucinations and delusions. Eventually, these persons may employ desperate and inappropriate defense mechanisms, which may further worsen the psychological disorganization. The ultimate result of such worsening disorganization would be violence, apathy, stupor and even death.

The three stages described in this article is a generalization of a person’s response in relation to a traumatic stress. However, every individual would have their own way of coping with such situations and therefore even in an instance where the stressors continue to exhaust the persons adaptive resources, he or she may not demonstrate the characteristics signs of personality decompensation stages.