How to Treat a Nervous Breakdown

A nervous breakdown should be taken seriously and treated as a mental health crisis. It is important to seek an evaluation from a mental health professional and to get immediate and ongoing treatment. Residential treatment programs help to overcome the breakdown, while ongoing therapy, lifestyle changes, stress management, and a commitment to self-care are all crucial factors in recovering from a nervous breakdown and minimizing the chances that it will happen again.

A nervous breakdown is a non-official term that refers to a mental health crisis triggered by excessive stress and a poor or limited ability to cope with that stress in healthy ways. A breakdown is not a true diagnosis, but it is a genuine mental health situation that needs to be taken seriously and treated. The result of a nervous breakdown is a loss of function. A person going through this is temporarily unable to function normally at home, at work, and in other situations.

A number of factors may trigger a nervous breakdown, but the overwhelming factors are stress and poor coping skills. The stress may come from responsibilities at home, caring for a loved one, a traumatic experience, work stress, or many different factors that all add up to cause a great deal of unmanageable stress.

The characteristic signs of a nervous breakdown include feelings of depression, anxiety or being overwhelmed, mood swings and emotional outbursts, declining performance at work or school, missing responsibilities and appointments, and using unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as angry outbursts or drinking to excess. A nervous breakdown may also cause physical symptoms like changes in sleep and weight, as well as unexplained physical pains.

Getting Help for a Nervous Breakdown

Getting help is crucial because it is very challenging to overcome this difficult situation alone. During a breakdown a person loses the ability to function normally, and that may also impair the ability to ask for help. It is important that friends and family recognize that something is wrong and seek professional help for someone experiencing a nervous breakdown. This can be treated, but it requires seeing a mental health professional for an evaluation and guidance in developing a treatment plan.

Residential Treatment for a Nervous Breakdown

A nervous breakdown is a crisis, which means that intensive treatment is often the best option. Spending a short period of time in a residential treatment facility allows a patient to be released from the responsibilities that caused so much stress in the first place and to focus on getting better. The length of the stay depends on the severity of the nervous breakdown and the progress of the patient.

The plan for treatment in residential care varies depending on individual needs but likely includes individual psychotherapy, group and support therapy, guided instruction in using relaxation techniques, and alternative therapies like acupuncture and art therapy.

Individual therapy is the backbone of treatment. A therapist may use one or more strategies to help the patient become more aware of what triggered the nervous breakdown and how to recognize and change negative emotions and behaviors. The therapist also teaches the patient how to manage stress more effectively, how to relax during stressful times, and what healthy coping strategies are effective for stress and for preventing a future breakdown.

Getting Emergency Care

A breakdown is considered a mental health crisis, but it is not necessarily an emergency. In some situations a person may need emergency care. For a friend or family member it is better to be safe than sorry and to seek emergency help if unsure about whether the person may cause harm. Some signs that a person may need emergency care, and a call to 911, include being unresponsive, being aggressive and violent, or exhibiting troubling signs of psychosis, such as hallucinations. Any signs that the person is suicidal, such as talk of death, should also be treated as an emergency.

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Ongoing Therapy for a Nervous Breakdown

For most patients who have received emergency or residential care for a nervous breakdown, continuing with therapy for a period of time afterward is important. Working with a therapist on a regular basis can help a patient manage and minimize stress, cope with stress in healthy ways, take steps to make important lifestyle changes, and make positive changes to negative thoughts and behaviors.

While one-on-one therapy is helpful for patients after a nervous breakdown, there are other options as well. Group therapy can help by allowing the patient to share with and benefit from other people with similar experiences. Family therapy can help by getting loved ones involved and ensuring that the patient has positive support at home. Alternative therapies can be useful in reducing stress and coping with negative emotions: art therapy, dance therapy, animal therapy, and others.

Diagnosis and Treatment for Underlying Conditions

One of the most important reasons to get good professional treatment for a nervous breakdown is that it can lead to the diagnosis of an underlying mental illness. A condition like depression or an anxiety disorder may have caused or contributed to the breakdown. Getting a diagnosis and treatment for that condition will help a patient return to being able to function and will help prevent future crises.

Treatment for either of these fairly common mental health conditions likely includes a combination of therapy and medications. Medications alone are not the best treatment for anxiety or depression, but an anti-anxiety drug or an antidepressant along with ongoing therapy can help a patient manage their mental health and prevent future nervous breakdowns. Other treatments for recovering from the breakdown, such as relaxation strategies and self-care, should continue as well.

Stress Management and Relaxation Strategies

Learning healthy coping strategies and techniques for relaxing is important for managing stress and recovering from a breakdown, as well as for preventing another one. These strategies should be learned during treatment, but a patient can and should continue to use them once formal treatment is finished. Some healthy strategies and techniques for inducing relaxation and coping with stress include:

  • Yoga or Tai Chi
  • Meditation
  • Breathing exercises and deep breathing
  • Guided imagery
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Autogenic relaxation
  • Aromatherapy

These are specific relaxation techniques, designed to be used at a moment when stress is building and threatens to overwhelm. They can also be used routinely to lower stress and increase relaxation throughout the day, regardless of external factors. In addition to these techniques, treatment can be supported by using healthy coping strategies for stress that are more varied.

For instance, spending an evening with friends after a stressful day is a healthy way to cope and to manage what might otherwise have caused a person to become isolated. Exercising or walking the dog outdoors, journaling, spending time on a hobby, going to a support group meeting, reading a good book quietly, or taking a warm bath are all examples of health ways to manage stress.

Lifestyles Changes and Self-Care

An important part of recovery from a nervous breakdown is making changes in one’s life to maintain the progress made in therapy and to try to prevent stress from building up to the breaking point again. Many people who have experienced a nervous breakdown need to take concrete steps to reduce stress in their lives. It is often not enough to simply use more healthy coping strategies. Eliminating or changing things that significantly contributed to a breakdown can help aid recovery and prevent a future incident. What needs to change varies by individual, but here are some examples:

  • Cutting down on hours spent at work
  • Reducing work responsibilities or even changing jobs
  • Moving out of a stressful living situation
  • Cutting ties with a person who causes stress
  • Getting help at home to handle responsibilities

Other lifestyle changes are important, too, and include making sure that a person engages in better self-care. Many people who have a breakdown neglected their own needs for too long. It is important to prioritize self-care regardless of other responsibilities. Some important types of self-care that can help improve mental health and prevent a future breakdown include:

  • Getting adequate sleep every night
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Taking enough time off to do enjoyable activities
  • Finding time to socialize with friends
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol
  • Spending time alone

Treating a nervous breakdown is important in helping a person in crisis return to normal functioning and to preventing future crises. The best first step is to seek the guidance of a mental health professional. This can be followed by an individual treatment plan that may include residential treatment, therapy, group support, lifestyle changes, and ongoing care and self-care. With solid initial and ongoing treatment, a person can return to a normal life and have a better chance of coping with stress going forward.