How Long Does a Nervous Breakdown Last?

A nervous breakdown, which is a loss of the ability to function in everyday life, may last for a few hours or a few weeks. The duration of this type of mental health crisis depends on the individual and factors such as the amount of stress leading up to the breakdown, coping strategies, timing and quality of treatment, any undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses, and the state of a social support system. Good, timely treatment can help minimize the duration and severity of a nervous breakdown.

A nervous breakdown is a state in which a person is no longer functioning normally and is typically brought on by stress and compounded by an inability to cope with stress in healthy ways. This is not an official mental health diagnosis, but it does represent a crisis in dealing with stress that many people face. The severity of the breakdown, how much it impacts the ability to function, and how long it lasts, vary by individual and contributing factors.

Signs that someone is going through a nervous breakdown include drops in performance at work, school or in other activities, not managing responsibilities, not keeping up with hygiene, personal appearance or housekeeping, mood swings, emotional outbursts, difficulty thinking or concentrating, social isolation, and feelings of depression, anxiety and being overwhelmed. A nervous breakdown requires treatment. Without treatment, it can take much longer to recover and a second incident is much more likely.

The Duration of a Nervous Breakdown Varies by Individual

A nervous breakdown is not a diagnosable mental health condition, and that means there are no official criteria to describe it, including duration. These mental health crises are highly variable, lasting a few hours for one person or weeks for another. There are many risk factors for having a nervous breakdown, and the more an individual has, the greater the chance is that a breakdown will last longer. These risk factors include:

  • An undiagnosed and untreated mental health condition, often depression or anxiety in the case of a nervous breakdown
  • Having a lot of responsibilities, at home, at work, or in other areas of life
  • A traumatic or stressful situation, such as a divorce, a chronic illness, or abuse
  • Having no or poor coping strategies for dealing with stressful situations
  • Using negative coping strategies, such as substance abuse
  • Having a type-A or perfectionist personality
  • Being unable to let go of control or delegate to others
  • Lacking good social support and a healthy social life with close friends or family members
  • Not taking care of personal health, including sleeping too little, eating a poor diet, or not getting enough exercise

A nervous breakdown may also vary in severity, which can impact the duration of the episode. A less severe breakdown that leads to deterioration in function but not total loss of function may go on for some time before a person seeks help. A severe crisis, on the other hand, may be shorter in duration, while recovery and treatment take much longer.

The Length of Hospitalization for Severe Breakdowns

In some instances of nervous breakdown, a hospital stay may be necessary for stabilization and treatment. Reasons to hospitalize a patient include talk of suicide or death, violence toward others, self-harm, symptoms of psychosis such as hallucinations and delusions, or a complete inability to function at all. In all of these cases the mental health crisis is severe and could result in harm to the patient, or the patient may be considered harmful to others.

The duration of the severe episode varies, but most patients can be stabilized within a few days. However, the length of stay in the hospital is often longer. One study found that among thousands of patients with severe mental illness, the average length of hospitalization was 10 days. Stays are longer when patients are taken to dedicated psychiatric hospitals than when they are sent to regular hospitals.

Recognizing Early Signs to Shut Down a Crisis Sooner

A person going through a nervous breakdown has some control over the duration of the episode. By being aware of and recognizing early signs that stress is mounting and that a person is not coping well with it, he or she can reach out for help sooner and thereby shorten the length of the crisis. This is much easier said than done, of course, and it may be easier for someone close to that person to recognize the early warning signs and to reach out and offer help. Some early indicators of a pending breakdown include:

  • Unusual, new, or worse signs of negative emotions like depression, sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, and general distress
  • Showing signs of being overwhelmed by a sense of pressure or by specific responsibilities, such as academics, work duties, or responsibilities in the home or for family members
  • Changes in behaviors, including eating or sleeping, missing appointments, deteriorating self-care, or decreased attention to normal activities
  • Struggling to think, remember things, make decisions, or get tasks done
  • An increase in reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drinking, gambling, emotional eating, or angry outbursts
  • Physical symptoms that can’t be explained by any physical illness, such as stomach upset, headaches, muscle aches, chest pains, fatigue, or being sick more often than usual
  • Avoiding treatment for a mental illness

These warning signs are much like the symptoms of a full nervous breakdown, but someone who is paying attention should begin to notice subtle changes before a person completely loses the ability to function normally. By recognizing warning signs early, the duration of a breakdown can be shortened following intervention and treatment.

The Importance of Treatment for Shortening a Nervous Breakdown

Another important factor in determining the length of a nervous breakdown is treatment. To minimize the duration of the crisis, treatment should be sought as soon as possible. The best, most comprehensive treatment gives a patient the best chance of recovering quickly. This usually means starting with inpatient care. A stay in a residential facility, for anywhere from a few days to a few months, provides a patient with the opportunity to receive intensive care and to be able to focus on that care and on getting well again.

When a patient leaves the treatment facility to go back home, the nervous breakdown may be long over, but the repercussions are not. The consequences of going through this experience are longer-lasting. Ongoing care and support is necessary to help patients return to so-called normal life, to face going back to family, to work, and to other responsibilities.

Good ongoing care for a nervous breakdown may include regular therapy sessions, working with support groups, putting relaxation techniques and healthy coping strategies to work, and prioritizing self-care. Also important is making lifestyle changes that will reduce daily stress and that address the factors that led to the initial breakdown. Not only does this thorough treatment plan shorten the duration of a nervous breakdown, it also reduces the risk of having a second crisis.

How long a nervous breakdown will last depends on many factors. Some people may have a minor crisis that lasts for an afternoon, while someone else may experience a more severe breakdown that leaves them dysfunctional for weeks. Factors that can shorten the duration of a breakdown include early detection, seeking professional help immediately, and getting high quality care as soon as possible.