A “nervous breakdown” or “mental breakdown” is a term used to describe a period of intense mental distress or illness that occurs suddenly. 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 health conditions, including:

“Nervous breakdown” is not a medical term or official diagnosis of a specific condition. It doesn’t have one agreed-upon definition but is instead used by many people to describe intense symptoms of stress and an inability to cope with life’s challenges.

What others see as a nervous breakdown can also be an undiagnosed mental health condition.

The signs of a nervous breakdown vary from person to person. The underlying cause can also affect the types of symptoms you experience. You may experience symptoms that are:

  • physical
  • psychological
  • behavioral

Since the term “nervous breakdown” is not used in the medical community, this mental state been described with a wide variety of symptoms that tend to appear suddenly.

These include:

  • depressive symptoms, such as:
    • feeling persistently sad or hopeless
    • feeling guilty or worthless
    • low energy or fatigue
  • anxiety symptoms, which may involve:
    • tense muscles
  • insomnia symptoms, which include having trouble falling or staying asleep
  • panic attacks, which may include:
    • extreme fear or a sense of doom
    • difficulty breathing
    • trembling or shaking
    • an accelerated heart rate or heart palpitations
    • sweating
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, which occur after a person experiences a traumatic event and may include:
    • intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares about the event
    • avoidance of places or situations that trigger related memories
    • continuing to feel guilt or shame about the event
    • self-destructive or reckless behaviors
  • extreme mood swings or unexplained outbursts
  • hallucinations, which means hearing noises or seeing things that do not have an external stimulus
  • paranoia, such as believing someone is watching you or stalking you

People experiencing a nervous breakdown may also withdraw from family, friends, and co-workers. Signs of withdrawal may 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

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.

Potential causes and triggers of a nervous breakdown include:

  • recent injury or illness that makes daily life difficult to manage
  • recent traumatic event, such as a death in the family
  • persistent stress at work or school
  • relationship changes, such as a divorce
  • job loss
  • exposure to violence
  • discrimination
  • serious financial issues, such as a home going into foreclosure
  • a major life change, such as a relocation
  • poor sleep
  • chronic medical conditions

A personal or family history of mental health conditions can increase a person’s risk of experiencing a nervous breakdown. A lack of strong social support may also contribute.

If you think you or someone you love might be experiencing a nervous breakdown, make an appointment with a primary care physician or a mental health professional. Seeing a healthcare professional is especially critical if you’re at risk of hurting yourself or others.

Your doctor will give you a complete physical examination and discuss any medications you’re currently taking to ensure other factors are not contributing to your symptoms.

They may then refer you to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist for further evaluation and treatments, which could include:

  • talk therapy
  • medications
  • lifestyle changes

Talk therapy

Your doctor may recommend talk therapy to treat your symptoms. One common type of psychotherapy that’s commonly used is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT has been proven effective at treating anxiety, depression, and other serious mental health conditions. It involves identifying problematic thought patterns and learning coping skills to better navigate challenging situations.

Medications

In addition to talk therapy, your practitioner may recommend prescription medications to treat symptoms or other diagnosed mental health conditions. This may include an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.

Lifestyle changes

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

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which may worsen symptoms of mental health conditions and interfere with sleep.
  • Exercise regularly, which helps combat stress and improve sleep. Regular physical activity has also been shown to improve the symptoms of many mental health conditions.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet. This includes plenty of:
    • fresh fruit and vegetables
    • whole grains
    • legumes
    • nuts and seeds
    • lean protein
  • Develop a bedtime schedule and routine that will help you sleep well. This could mean:
    • taking a warm bath
    • switching off electronic devices
    • reading a book
  • Practice stress-relieving techniques, such as:

It’s not uncommon to feel unable to cope with life’s stresses at one time or another. But stress can become a health concern if it begins to interfere with your ability to complete daily tasks.

A nervous breakdown could be a sign of a mental health condition. It’s important for you to see your doctor as soon as you notice signs of a breakdown.

Your doctor can help you treat the physical symptoms. They can also refer you to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional who 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.

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 3 times a week, which can be as simple as walking around your neighborhood for 30 minutes
  • seeing a mental health professional or attending counseling sessions to manage stress
  • avoiding drugs, alcohol, caffeine, and other substances that stress the body
  • sleeping for at least 7 hours per night
  • incorporating relaxation techniques like deep breathing into your daily routine
  • reducing your day-to-day stress level by:
    • pacing yourself
    • taking mini breaks
    • organizing your environment and daily activities
    • keeping a daily to-do list

You can make these changes on your own, but it may be more helpful to work with a healthcare professional to create a treatment plan that best meets your healthcare needs.

If you think you might be having a nervous breakdown, contact your doctor or a healthcare professional as soon as possible. They can help determine the cause, diagnose any health conditions that may be contributing to your symptoms, and refer you to a specialist for further care.

The following organizations can also provide information, support, and referrals to mental health professionals:

A nervous breakdown is also known as a mental breakdown. The term is not an official diagnosis and is not used by the medical community.

However, it is sometimes used to describe when mental distress suddenly becomes so overwhelming that a person can’t function in their day-to-day life. A nervous breakdown may also be a sign of another underlying mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.

If you think you’re having a nervous breakdown, it’s important to see your primary care doctor or a mental healthcare professional as soon as possible. They can help diagnose any mental or physical health conditions and determine underlying causes for a breakdown.

Your doctor may refer you to another healthcare professional. They may also provide therapy, medications, or lifestyle recommendations to treat mental health conditions and help you find a healthier way to cope with stress.