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:
Although “nervous breakdown” is no longer considered a medical term, it’s still used by many to describe:
- intense symptoms of stress
- an inability to cope with life’s challenges
What others see as a mental breakdown can also be an undiagnosed mental illness.
There isn’t one agreed-upon definition for what defines 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.
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.
Since the term is no longer used in the medical community, a nervous breakdown has been described using a wide variety of symptoms. These include:
- depressive symptoms, such as loss of hope and thoughts of suicide or self-harm
- anxiety with high blood pressure, tense muscles, clammy hands, dizziness, upset stomach, and trembling or shaking
- extreme mood swings or unexplained outbursts
- panic attacks, which include chest pain, detachment from reality and self, extreme fear, and difficulty breathing
- paranoia, such as believing someone is watching you or stalking you
- flashbacks of a traumatic event, which can suggest undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
People experiencing a nervous breakdown may also withdraw from family, friends, and co-workers. 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
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 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 inability to relax
- chronic medical conditions
Some existing factors might increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing a nervous breakdown. These include:
- personal history of anxiety disorders
- family history of anxiety disorders
- recent injury or illness that makes daily life difficult to manage
You can break out of the cycle of psychological or behavioral distress by:
- making an appointment with your primary care provider for a complete physical examination to ensure your overall health is not contributing to your symptoms
- using either talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy
- taking prescription medications, such as antidepressants or antianxiety medication, to treat symptoms
- practicing alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, or yoga
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’re 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 warm bath, switching off electronic devices, or reading a book before bed.
It’s not uncommon to feel unable to cope with life’s stresses at one time or another. But you’re not dealing with 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 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 or psychiatrist. These mental health professionals can treat your emotional, mental, and behavioral symptoms.
If you don’t already have a mental health care provider, you can browse doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.
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
- going to a therapist or attending 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 into 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 work with your doctor to create a treatment plan that best meets your healthcare needs.