How to Recognize and Treat the Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on February 14, 2017Written by Annamarya Scaccia

What is a nervous breakdown?

A nervous or mental breakdown is a term used to describe a period of intense mental distress. During this period, you’re unable to function in your everyday life. This term was once used to refer to a wide variety of mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and acute stress disorder. Although “nervous breakdown” is no longer considered a medical term, it’s still used by many to describe intense symptoms of stress and an inability to cope with life’s challenges. What others see as a mental breakdown may actually be an undiagnosed mental illness.

There isn’t one agreed upon definition for what constitutes a nervous breakdown. It’s generally viewed as a period when physical and emotional stress become intolerable and impair one’s ability to function effectively.

What are the symptoms of a nervous breakdown?

You may experience physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms when going through a breakdown. The signs of a nervous breakdown vary from person to person. The underlying cause can also affect what symptoms you experience.

The most common signs of a nervous breakdown are:

People experiencing a nervous breakdown may also withdraw from family, friends, and coworkers. Signs of such withdrawal include:

  • avoiding social functions and engagements
  • eating and sleeping poorly
  • maintaining poor hygiene
  • calling in sick to work for days or not showing up to work at all
  • isolating yourself in your home

Risk factors that can lead to a nervous breakdown

A person may report having a nervous breakdown when stress is too much for them to bear. That stress can be caused by external influences. Some of those risk factors include:

  • persistent work stress
  • recent traumatic event, such as a death in the family
  • serious financial issues, such as going into foreclosure
  • a major life change, such as a divorce
  • poor sleep and relaxation
  • personal history of anxiety disorders
  • family history of anxiety disorders
  • recent injury or illness that makes daily life difficult to manage

How to manage your symptoms

You can break out of the cycle of psychological or behavioral distress by:

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and on the verge of a breakdown, consider these strategies for managing your symptoms:

  • Breathe deeply and count backward from 10 when you are feeling anxious or stressed.
  • Cut caffeine and alcohol from your diet.
  • Develop a sleep schedule and routine that will help you sleep well. This could mean taking a bath, switching off electronic devices, or reading a book before bed.

When to see a doctor

It’s not uncommon for someone to feel, at one time or another, unable to cope with life’s stresses. You’re not dealing with the stress in a healthy way if you’re having difficulty doing your daily tasks. A nervous breakdown could be a sign of a mental health disorder. It’s important for you to go to the doctor as soon as you notice the signs of a breakdown.

Your doctor can help you treat the physical symptoms. They can also refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist. These mental health professionals can treat your emotional, mental, and behavioral symptoms. Caregivers should also contact a doctor as soon as possible if they’re worried about a loved one’s behavior or mental state.

Tips for self-care

Lifestyle modifications can help you prevent a nervous breakdown. They can also help lessen the severity and frequency of them. These include:

  • getting regular exercise at least three times a week, which can be as simple as walking around your neighborhood for 30 minutes
  • going to a therapist or counseling sessions to manage stress
  • avoiding drugs, alcohol, caffeine, and other substances that create stress on the body
  • getting regular sleep and sleeping for at least six hours a night
  • incorporating relaxation techniques like deep breathing to your daily routine
  • reducing your stress level by pacing yourself, taking mini-breaks, better organizing your environment and daily activities, and keeping a daily to-do list

You can make these changes on your own, but it may be more helpful to come up with a treatment plan with your doctor.

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