Types of Nervous Breakdowns

A nervous breakdown is generally the same in all people, in that it is caused by stress and an inability to cope with stress. Breakdowns are also similar in that they lead to a loss of the ability to function normally. Different types include breakdowns caused by depression or an anxiety disorder, a breakdown that causes psychotic symptoms, or work-related burnout. Nervous breakdowns may also differ in the types of situations that cause the stress and whether they build up slowly or happen quickly after one major stressful event.

What is a Nervous Breakdown?

The term nervous breakdown refers to a range of mental health crises related to stress and that cause a person to be unable to function normally. While this is not a specific mental health diagnosis, nervous breakdown is a real and serious situation that can have profound effects on the person experiencing it. The stress that causes a nervous breakdown may differ from one individual to the next, but the commonality is that the person is not coping well with the stress in their lives.

A nervous breakdown should be taken seriously and should lead to a consultation with a mental health professional. Getting treated in a residential setting with therapy, medical care, and group support is a good start to better lifelong self-care that will reduce the risk that a person will have another nervous breakdown. A mental health crisis triggered by stress may come in several forms, but they are all similar in that they begin with stress and a poor coping mechanism for stress, which can result in a decrease of functioning in many areas of life.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of a Nervous Breakdown

Regardless of factors that make a nervous breakdown different from one person to the next, there are some common signs and symptoms. The signs are related to having a lot of stress and losing the ability to function or complete normal tasks and activities. These symptoms can be emotional, behavioral, and physical and include:

  • Feelings of depression or anxiety that are new or more overwhelming than before
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Shutting down and being unable to participate in normal activities
  • Missing appointments, work, school, and other responsibilities
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, or getting tasks done
  • Being socially isolated and withdrawn
  • Experiencing mood swings that may be extreme
  • Decreased self-care, like hygiene or personal appearance
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Changes in eating habits, causing weight loss or weight gain
  • Extreme fatigue and lethargy or apathy
  • Unexplained pains or gastrointestinal distress
  • Getting sick more often or worse than usual

Causes of a Nervous Breakdown

One way in which episodes of nervous or emotional breakdown may differ is the cause. In general, stress and a failure to cope with stress is what causes nervous breakdowns, but what triggers the stress and how quickly that leads to a crisis can differ greatly from one individual to the next. For instance, in one person a nervous breakdown may result after years of having too many responsibilities at work and home with poor coping strategies, while for someone else a sudden tragedy, like the loss of a spouse, may cause enough overwhelming stress to trigger the breakdown.

Anything that causes stress may trigger a breakdown. For someone who copes well with stress and has healthy management strategies, it may take a lot to lead to a mental health crisis. Of course, it is also possible that a person with good coping strategies may never experience a psychological breakdown, regardless of high levels of stress. On the other hand, someone who does not cope well may break down in the face of stress that seems minor to someone else.

A Nervous Breakdown Caused by Underlying Anxiety or Depression

It is not uncommon for a nervous breakdown to occur in someone who has an underlying, undiagnosed, and untreated mental illness. Most commonly, an anxiety disorder or major depression may trigger a nervous breakdown, especially when untreated or when treatment has been neglected. These conditions, when not treated, can make it challenging for an individual to cope with stress that otherwise might not be as significant.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses, and many people live with one without being treated. Specific anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and panic disorder. These conditions are characterized by excessive worry and feelings of anxiety that persist. Anxiety can cause a lot of distress, dysfunction, physical symptoms, and trouble thinking. Not managing anxiety and having stress can be a recipe for a nervous breakdown.

Depression is another very common mental health condition, and when left untreated could trigger a nervous breakdown. Someone with depression feels persistently sad and hopeless, is fatigued and unable to summon interest for normal activities. Like anxiety disorders, this condition can make it very difficult to function. When not treated, the struggle to cope with the low mood as well as any added stress can easily lead to a breakdown.

While the nervous breakdown can and should be treated, when it is caused by depression or anxiety, it is crucial to get an accurate diagnosis and to address the underlying condition. Ongoing treatment and self-care for anxiety or depression will help a person recover more quickly from a nervous breakdown, and it will also provide good coping strategies to help prevent one in the future.

A mental breakdown can be caused by a number of factors, but for a lot of people stress from work is a major or sole cause. Some professionals refer to a work-related nervous breakdown as burnout syndrome. The symptoms of burnout syndrome include three main signs that mirror what anyone experiencing a nervous breakdown of any type goes through:

  • Extreme exhaustion and fatigue. This is often related to putting in long hours, but can be both physical and emotional. People who care for others, for instance in the healthcare field, may experience a lot of emotional fatigue.
  • Poor performance. As with any type of nervous breakdown, burnout syndrome leads to poor performance at work. The low performance may trickle into other areas of life as well.
  • Feeling depersonalized. Work stress can lead to an indifferent or cynical attitude toward work, and may cause an affect that seems impersonal or uncaring.

As with other types of psychological breakdowns, a work-related burnout should be taken seriously. A person going through this should be professionally evaluated to determine if treatment is needed or if changes at work and the use of stress management strategies would be sufficient to reverse and prevent burnout.

Nervous Breakdown with Psychotic Symptoms

A psychotic breakdown is any nervous breakdown that triggers symptoms of psychosis, which refers to losing touch with reality. Psychosis is more often associated with very serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, but anyone can experience these symptoms if stress becomes overwhelming, triggering a breakdown.

A common type of psychosis experienced during a nervous breakdown is a feeling of detachment or depersonalization. A person may feel as if they are not really a part of any given situation, like work or dinner with family. This can also make someone feel as if they are not really themselves. Symptoms may also include hallucinations, sounds or images that seem real but aren’t really there, as well as delusions and paranoia. These last two may take the form of being irrationally suspicious of family, friends, and other people.

Panic Attacks

A panic attack is not the same as a nervous breakdown, but it is very similar with symptoms that overlap. Multiple panic attacks may lead to a diagnosis of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder. Some people may have just one panic attack, and this is not considered a diagnosable anxiety disorder. Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • An intense fear or sense of dread that something bad is about to happen
  • Fear of losing control or of dying
  • A feeling of detachment
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • A rapid heartbeat
  • Hot flashes, chills, or both
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tingling and numbness in hands or feet
  • Headache
  • Chest pains

Panic attacks come on suddenly and without warning. They are shorter-lived than nervous breakdowns and when they pass, they can leave a person feeling fatigued and stressed. While some people who have panic attacks may not have a lot of stress in their lives, these attacks can be triggered by a lot of stress, just like nervous breakdowns. Panic attacks are very frightening because of how sudden they are and because they cause a lot of physical symptoms, more so than nervous breakdowns do.

Because a nervous breakdown is not technically a mental health condition or diagnosis, there are no real defined types. However, there are many different experiences that individuals experience when going through this kind of crisis. A breakdown may be sudden or build slowly; it may be the result of mental illness; it may be a psychotic breakdown; or it could be a panic attack. What these all have in common is that they are caused by stress and require treatment and ongoing care to recover from and to prevent in the future.