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:

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:

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:

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.