What are the Signs and Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown?

The main signs of a nervous breakdown are feeling overwhelmed by stress and stressful situations and being unable to function normally. Other signs and symptoms include social isolation, feelings of depression and anxiety, mood swings, and an inability to concentrate or make decisions. A nervous breakdown may also cause physical symptoms like indigestion, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, or weight changes. A breakdown also leads to a loss of function in normal activities, like work, school, household chores, and personal hygiene.

A Nervous Breakdown is a Mental Health Crisis

It is important to understand that a nervous breakdown is not something to be taken lightly. It is not an actual mental health diagnosis, but it is considered a mental health crisis that requires treatment and follow up care. A breakdown occurs when someone is no longer able to cope with the stress in his or her life. As a result, one is temporarily unable to function at work, at school, at home, in relationships, and in other aspects of daily life.

A mental breakdown like this builds up after periods of stress and a lack of healthy ways to manage and cope with that stress. It can have very serious consequences, especially when left untreated. If you or someone you care about is showing signs of being unable to cope with stress or function normally, it is crucial to get professional help, to get a mental health evaluation, and to seek treatment along with permanent lifestyle changes to reduce and better manage stress. These steps will help someone get through a nervous breakdown, recover from it, and reduce the risk of having another one.

Early Warning Signs of a Nervous Breakdown

The earlier the signs of an impending breakdown are recognized, the sooner someone can get help and take steps to reduce and manage the stress that is causing it. One early sign is also a risk factor for having a breakdown: a lot of stress. Stress may be caused by multiple factors and build up over time, or it can be caused by an immediate situation, like a death in the family.

Not everyone who goes through stressful events will have a nervous breakdown. Some people are better able to cope with it than others. But an increased amount of stress is typically what leads up to a breakdown. Some other early warning signs include:

  • New or unexplained feelings of anxiety or depression, or worsening feelings
  • Feeling overwhelmed or pressured
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Changes in eating, leading to weight loss or weight gain
  • An increase in use of unhealthy coping habits, like drinking
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, remembering things, or accomplishing what are normally easy tasks
  • Being uncharacteristically lazy about hygiene or appearance
  • Not getting treatment for depression, anxiety, or another mental illness
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms, like upset stomach or diarrhea
  • Mood swings

Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown

The early warning signs of a nervous breakdown may also be the same as mental breakdown symptoms. These signs may lead quickly to a nervous breakdown, but with appropriate intervention the crisis can be avoided. A complete nervous breakdown is mostly characterized by becoming totally engulfed and overwhelmed by stress and stressful situations and being unable to function normally. These typical characterizations of a breakdown can manifest in several ways depending on the individual. Some of the possible symptoms include:

  • Depression. The symptoms of depression are common during a nervous breakdown: hopelessness, sadness, lack of energy, and loss of interest in normal activities.
  • Anxiety. Also common are symptoms of anxiety, like worrying a lot, feeling nervous, tense, restless, and feeling overwhelmed.
  • Isolation. Someone going through a nervous breakdown may feel isolated and may withdraw from friends and family, worsening that feeling.
  • Changes in thinking. A breakdown can make concentrating, thinking, memory, and decision making more difficult. A person going through this may be unable to accomplish things they normally do easily or may become so paralyzed they do nothing at all.
  • Changes in behaviors. Someone experiencing a nervous breakdown may exhibit behaviors that are not typical for them, like avoiding social activities, missing days of work, or skipping out on responsibilities.
  • Mood swings. Nervous breakdowns often cause mood swings, which may be accompanied by emotional outbursts, anger and irritability, crying, and other emotional responses not appropriate to the situation.

A Nervous Breakdown Can Cause Physical Symptoms

Although a nervous breakdown is a mental health crisis, it can also cause physical symptoms and signs. It is not uncommon, for instance, for early warning signs to include some physical pain or discomfort that can’t be explained. These may include stomach upset, headaches, or changes in appetite. During a nervous breakdown, there are also physical symptoms that most people experience. Examples include:

  • Insomnia
  • Being sick more often or worse than usual
  • Stomach upset, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Sore muscles
  • Racing heartbeat or heart palpitations
  • Chest pains
  • Excessive sweating
  • Back pain
  • In women, disruption in menstruation

A nervous breakdown may be acute and sudden, in which case it may be diagnosed as an anxiety or panic attack. This diagnosable condition causes similar physical symptoms, which can be very frightening. It is not uncommon to mistake a panic attack for a heart attack because it can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, numbness and tingling in the arms, dizziness, and fainting. A panic attack may also cause extreme anxiety or fear.

Losing the Ability to Function

One of the strongest characteristics of a nervous breakdown is no longer being able to function normally, but this can look different from one person to another. Here are some examples of signs that someone is not functioning normally because of a nervous breakdown:

  • Missing work or school
  • Performing poorly at work or school
  • Missing appointments and other responsibilities
  • Avoiding social situations and staying home as much as possible
  • No longer keeping up with basic personal hygiene and housekeeping
  • Not engaging in what are normally enjoyable activities or hobbies

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What a Nervous Breakdown Feels Like

A nervous breakdown, like a lot of other mental health issues, can be difficult to recognize in oneself. It may be easier to see the signs in someone else. If you are experiencing a nervous breakdown or if you are under a lot of stress and pressure and may be at risk for a nervous breakdown, it helps to know what it feels like. If you can recognize some of these signs, you can reach out for help and either prevent a breakdown or help get yourself back on track after treatment:

  • A nervous breakdown will make you feel overwhelmed, more so than you have in the past.
  • You may also feel as if you just can’t do it anymore: go to school, take care of your kids, go to work, or even small things like go to the grocery store.
  • A breakdown can make you feel very moody, as if you need to cry one minute and scream the next.
  • Your thinking may change, making it more difficult to do much of anything. You may struggle to do tasks that are normally easy or to concentrate on one thing at a time.
  • A nervous breakdown can feel very isolating. You may feel alone, even if there are people all around you.
  • You may even have thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

A Nervous Breakdown with Psychosis

It is not as common as other symptoms, but psychosis is possible when a person has a nervous breakdown. Psychosis is a break with reality and can cause a number of different symptoms. Psychosis during a breakdown can lead to a feeling of detachment or depersonalization, not feeling like oneself, or feeling detached from situations. It can also cause paranoia or delusions, a sense that someone is watching or causing harm.

Someone in a breakdown may begin to be suspicious of people close to them. Psychotic breakdown symptoms may even include hallucinations or flashbacks that feel very real, especially in people who have experienced some type of trauma. Any signs of psychosis should be taken very seriously should be evaluated by a mental health professional.

A nervous breakdown may look a little bit different in each individual, but the basic characteristics are the same: feeling overwhelmed, no longer able to cope with stress, and being unable to function normally. Physical signs of a breakdown may also occur, and in some cases there may be psychotic symptoms. Any signs of a breakdown or an impending breakdown should be taken seriously and should lead to a professional evaluation and treatment. Residential treatment followed by ongoing care, using healthy stress coping strategies, minimizing stress, and engaging in self-care is the best way to recover from a breakdown and to get back to a normal life with a reduced risk for a future episode.