A nervous breakdown is a mental health crisis that occurs when a person is no longer able to cope with stress or pressure. Stressful life events may trigger a breakdown, but underlying mental illness may also cause it. A nervous breakdown may cause intense anxiety, depression, moodiness, physical symptoms, and an inability to keep up with normal activities, such as work, hygiene or managing relationships. A breakdown can be treated and prevented with therapy and self-care.
What is a Nervous Breakdown?
The term nervous breakdown is not precisely a medical term, and it is not the name of a specific mental health condition. It is used to describe a mental health crisis, which may also be called a mental breakdown. During this crisis a person feels intense stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions. The person is unable to cope with stress and emotional demands, which leads to a disruption in day-to-day life and functioning.
A nervous breakdown is not a healthy way to cope with stress. What causes it can be different for every person, and the severity of the crisis also varies by individual and incident. The term nervous breakdown may be used casually to describe anyone not coping well with stress, but when it really happens it can genuinely feel like a crisis to the person experiencing the breakdown. It may even constitute a mental health emergency and require treatment from mental health professionals, in some cases requiring a hospital stay or residential treatment. A breakdown often means that there is an underlying mental illness, like an anxiety disorder, that needs to be diagnosed and treated.
Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown
It isn’t always easy to be aware of one’s own mental state, especially in the middle of a crisis like a nervous breakdown. It helps to be aware of the symptoms to be able to recognize them in oneself or in loved ones. The symptoms vary by person. Anyone going through a mental health crisis may experience a few or more of these:
- Feelings of depression, sadness, or hopelessness
- Severe anxiety
- Feeling socially isolated
- Feeling detached or not like oneself
- Emotional outbursts or extreme mood swings
- Paranoia, a sense that someone is watching or following you
- Flashbacks to troubling events
- Difficulty concentrating or thinking
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
Another very important indication that someone may be going through a nervous breakdown is an inability to function normally. This can take one or more of several different forms:
- Missing a lot of work or school, or performing poorly
- Avoiding social situations
- Not keeping up with personal hygiene
- Missing appointments or other responsibilities
- Staying home and being isolated
- Not cleaning or maintaining the home
A nervous breakdown can also cause physical symptoms. A person going through this crisis may have a panic attack, which causes extreme fear and anxiety as well as chest pains, tingling hands or feet, and difficulty breathing. A breakdown can also cause high blood pressure, dizziness, shaking, indigestion, insomnia, aches and pains, and fatigue or exhaustion.
Early Warning Signs
A nervous breakdown is triggered by something, or several things, that cause stress. A person going through this kind of mental health crisis has reached a point of being unable to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions. There can be signs that a breakdown may be coming, and recognizing them can help someone take charge, ask for help, and learn better ways of coping to get back on track. Some potential early warning signs that a person may suffer a breakdown are:
- Functioning at work, school, or home declining in small ways, such as a poor performance report, a bad test, or more fighting in relationships and ignoring chores
- Unusual or new feelings of depression or anxiety
- Changes in appetite and weight
- Changes in thinking, like an unusual difficulty focusing on tasks or remembering things
- Being uncharacteristically unorganized
- Increased use of alcohol or other substance abuse as a way to try to cope
- Laziness in appearance or cleanliness
- Feeling a lot of pressure
- Avoiding treatment for a mental illness
- Feeling like life is just unmanageable, or feeling overwhelmed
Causes of a Nervous Breakdown
The general cause of a nervous breakdown is stress and an inability to cope with it. However, there are many different things that can lead to the breakdown in each individual. These can be external factors, like stressful or traumatic events, or they may be internal, such as depression or an anxiety disorder. Some examples of what may cause, trigger, or increase the risk for a nervous breakdown include:
- Increasing stress or pressure at work
- Stress at home, difficult personal relationships
- A traumatic event, like a loss of a loved one or a physical assault
- A big life change, like a divorce or a move
- An injury or recent diagnosis of illness
- Financial problems
- An anxiety disorder
- Major depression
- Any untreated mental illness
Sometimes the causes of a breakdown are multiple, or it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly what triggered the breakdown. It may just be mounting stress from being overly busy or it can be one defining event, like a trauma. Everyone responds differently to difficult situations and to stress, and what triggers a breakdown for one person may be something another person can cope with well.
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Diagnosing and Treating a Nervous Breakdown
There isn’t really a diagnosis for a nervous breakdown, because it is not a medical term or a specific mental illness. However, when someone experiences this situation, it may be diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist as a general mental health crisis or as a mental illness that underlies the crisis. Common diagnoses for someone who has experienced a mental breakdown are anxiety disorders, major depression, and acute stress disorder.
Treatment for a nervous breakdown may involve therapy, medication, and self-care or lifestyle changes. Working with a therapist can help someone manage negative emotions, explore the causes of those feelings, and change thoughts and behaviors to minimize stress and better cope with it. A therapist can also teach someone healthy coping strategies and relaxation techniques to manage or prevent another breakdown.
In some cases, medication may be prescribed to someone who has had a nervous breakdown. This is most likely if the person is diagnosed with an underlying mental health condition. For instance, if the person was diagnosed with depression, antidepressants may help manage the condition and prevent future breakdowns. For people struggling with anxiety, anti-anxiety medications may be useful.
Self-Care and Lifestyle
Anyone who has experienced a nervous breakdown should consider making lifestyle changes and engaging in better self-care to help eliminate and manage stress. For instance, a change of job, ending a stressful relationship, or cutting down on responsibilities or time-consuming activities may reduce the pressure and stress that built up to a nervous breakdown.
In addition to making those changes, a person who has not coped well with stress in the past can benefit from good self-care:
- Socialize more with friends and family. Social support is crucial for managing stress
- Get more physical exercise, a great way to reduce stress
- Practice relaxation techniques, like meditation, journaling, or breathing exercises
- Eat a healthy diet
- Get enough sleep every night
- Take time to do enjoyable activities
- Spend time alone if needed
What to Do in a Crisis
A severe or acute nervous breakdown may become a mental health emergency that requires hospitalization or residential treatment immediately. This is especially true if a person is having thoughts of self-harm or suicide. A panic attack can also feel like a medical emergency with a lot of the same symptoms as a heart attack. It is important to get immediate help when experiencing these things or when observed in someone else. Here are some steps to take during a mental health crisis:
- If in doubt, call 911 for emergency assistance
- Reach out to talk to someone, such as a close friend or family member
- Call a suicide prevention or mental health hotline
- Call a trusted doctor or therapist for advice
- Consider a residential treatment program
Outlook After a Nervous Breakdown
The outlook for someone who has suffered a nervous breakdown is good if that person gets help and practices strategies for reducing stress after the event. Someone who ignores the event and does not take steps to manage stress or treat an underlying mental health condition is likely to experience another breakdown in the future.
A nervous breakdown is not something to be ignored.It should be followed up by a consultation with a mental health professional. Many people will then require residential treatment that includes therapy sessions, medication if needed. After intensive in-patient treatment, a commitment to reducing stress and practicing strategies for coping with stress at home can prevent a future nervous breakdown. It is also important to remember that this kind of mental health crisis could be a sign of an undiagnosed mental illness. If all these issues are addressed and treated, the outlook is very good.