Anyone dealing with mental health struggles knows the challenge of identifying precisely what's going on in your head, and self-diagnosis can lead to additional stress and missed opportunities.

Today, we'll look at a specific mental health problem, which goes by the term nervous breakdown. We'll give you an in-depth look at the signs of a mental breakdown, the situations that put you most at risk, along with techniques to manage your symptoms.

By the end of this article, you'll know what a true nervous breakdown looks like and how to prevent one in the future.

What Is a Nervous Breakdown

The term nervous breakdown refers to a moment of overwhelming stress due to anxiety or depression that prevents a person from carrying on with day-to-day activities or function normally.

Mental breakdown and nervous breakdown are both used interchangeably and are technically not medical conditions or disorders but used more as blanket terms to describe an unhealthy response to acute stress [1].

About 22.8% of Americans experience serious anxiety symptoms, increasing their chances of having a nervous breakdown

Nervous Breakdown Symptoms

Symptoms of nervous breakdowns can have three distinct effects on a person—physical, psychological, and behavioral [2]. People experiencing a breakdown may have a combination of these signs, and each can vary from person to person.

Physical Symptoms:

  • Unexplained aches and pains.
  • Muscle tension and stiffness.
  • Shaking/trembling.
  • Moving or speaking slower than usual.
  • Hot or cold flashes.
  • Changes in appetite, difficulty eating.
  • Significant weight gain/loss.
  • Irregular heartbeat or chest tightness.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Dry mouth and sweating.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, heartburn, diarrhea).
  • Unable to stop crying.
  • Frequent illnesses.

Psychological Symptoms:

  • Feeling helpless and hopeless.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Mood swings.
  • Feeling emotionally and physically exhausted.
  • Lack of motivation and interest.
  • Hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • Suicidal /self-harm thoughts.

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Avoiding social situations.
  • Isolation from family and friends.
  • Forgetting to eat or care for oneself.
  • Difficulty thinking, focusing, or remembering.
  • Unable to get along with or tolerate other people.
  • Insomnia.
  • Decreased sex drive.

Causes Of a Nervous Breakdown

Significant stress and the inability to cope with current pressures in specific situations may trigger a nervous breakdown.

Most breakdowns may be caused by either external circumstances—things that happen outside of your control—or underlying mental health conditions, all of which result in a domino effect of emotional, physical, and psychological responses.

Some common causes are:

  • Work stress: Pressures at work may include a promotion, difficult colleagues or bosses, challenging work assignments, no access to sick days, vacation, or childcare.
  • Traumatic events: Life-changing events such as a death in the family can have an immediate impact. Early signs of recent trauma are more prominent, but people can suffer intense, long-term repercussions from past events.
  • Financial stress: Not being able to cope with serious financial issues such as foreclosure, losing a job, or unexpected medical bills may cause debilitating stress for some people.
  • Major life changes: Marriage, divorce, loss of a job, childbirth, and postpartum can affect people's day-to-day lives and might be a trigger for a nervous breakdown.
  • Poor sleep/inability to relax: The human body requires 7-9 hours of sleep to rejuvenate and function properly [3]. Not getting regular sleep or being in a high-stress situation with no outlet to decompress can make you susceptible to a breakdown and other disorders.
  • Chronic medical conditions: Some chronic medical conditions like Multiple Sclerosis, autoimmune diseases, Fibromyalgia, and cancer are severe conditions that can cause physical, mental, and emotional distress.

Risk Factors of a Mental Breakdown

Certain situations make people vulnerable to breakdowns, and the risk factors are different for everyone; no one person will respond the same way to these conditions.

Here are a few situations that may put you at risk and increase the likelihood of you having a major nervous breakdown:

  • Military Veteran/PTSD.
  • Family history of anxiety disorders.
  • An abusive relationship.
  • Identifying as LGBTQIA without a good support network.
  • Recent injury or illness making daily life difficult to manage.

Types of Nervous Breakdowns

The type of nervous breakdown depends on the particular circumstance of distress. Breakdowns can vary and may be described in the following ways:

  • A diagnosed condition such as PTSD.
  • The inability to cope in stressful situations.
  • A one-time sudden attack.
  • A problem that builds stress over time.
  • The length of time the breakdown lasts.

Over 30% of US adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, which could lead to a nervous breakdown

 

Underlying Anxiety or Depression

An undiagnosed or untreated mental illness such as an anxiety disorder or chronic depression is a common trigger for nervous breakdowns.

Anxiety disorders are a prevalent diagnosis and can include social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and panic disorder.

Depression is another common mental health condition that can trigger a breakdown. Someone having trouble with depression may have a continuous feeling of hopelessness and despair, making it difficult to function normally.

Without treatment, someone experiencing a nervous breakdown may have an overwhelming feeling of stress, causing the individual to spiral in extreme thought, resulting in physical reactions as well as behavioral changes.

Burnout Syndrome and Work-Related Breakdowns

Work burnout can happen to any overwhelmed professional working in a high-stress environment. Signs of work-related breakdowns include severe fatigue and exhaustion, poor performance, distress, and a general impersonalization or uncaring feeling towards coworkers, supervisors, and the job itself.

Nervous Breakdown With Psychotic Symptoms

Extreme stress and anxiety can trigger a psychotic break, where the individual loses a sense of reality. This is a serious mental illness and may include delusions, auditory and visual hallucinations, extreme paranoia, and a sense of detachment.

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks and nervous breakdowns are not the same, but they have elements that overlap, such as intense anxiety, feelings of detachment, and increased heart rate.

The three main characteristics that describe a panic attack and what makes it different from a nervous breakdown include:

  • A burst of sudden fear and anxiety.
  • The absence of a trigger to initiate an attack.
  • The length of time of an attack, 20-30 mins.

After the initial panic attack, individuals may experience what some call a panic attack hangover, leaving the individual tired and fatigued for a few hours to a few days after the attack.

Panic attacks can happen several times in one day or once every few years.

When To Seek Medical Advice

Normal stress is a common occurrence, but if that stress starts to interfere with everyday life--it becomes more challenging to cope while carrying out daily activities, or you identify with one or more breakdown symptoms, it's time to seek medical advice and possible treatment.

A clinical doctor may offer medication and treatment for specific symptoms such as trouble sleeping and eating and can refer you to a therapist. A mental health professional may use therapy to diagnose any underlying cause of a breakdown and offer techniques to improve your mental health.

Depression is a common cause of a nervous breakdown, fortunately almost 60% of people seek treatment

How To Manage Symptoms

There are six things you can do STARTING TODAY to help manage stress and the symptoms of a nervous breakdown and prevent future attacks, all while improving your overall mental health.

  1. Visit your doctor or another healthcare professional. Your clinical doctor or primary care physician can use physical examinations and blood tests to rule out medical conditions that may be causing your symptoms.
  2. See a therapist or mental health expert. Therapy is a popular option for people in highly stressful situations. A mental health professional may be able to provide a diagnosis of your condition and determine if it's external or if you suffer from an undiagnosed mental health condition.
  3. Consider medications. Some of the more physical symptoms, along with anxiety and depression, can be managed with medications like antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills. This type of treatment may benefit someone with minor aches and pains or trouble sleeping.
  4. Naturally manage stress. There are popular management techniques available to you anywhere and at any time. For example, deep breathing, meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness exercises are great ways to control stress. There are convenient apps like talk space and better help for at-home, on-demand personal care.
  5. Schedule rest and relaxation time. Being tired, rundown, and unable to deal with stress can quickly turn everyday circumstances into a crisis. Coping with these issues is easier when you develop better sleeping habits and take time during the day to rest, relax and tune out the world for a few minutes. Daily meditation and building a regular sleep routine may help.
  6. Be mindful of personal care. One of the best ways to prevent excessive stress and maintain good mental health is by taking care of your body with a healthy diet and regular exercise. Take time out to treat yourself to occasional pampering and self-love.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do You Know If You Had a Nervous Breakdown?

There's usually a combination of signs you can experience related to a nervous breakdown. Here are the most common symptoms and real-world examples to help you identify each one:

  • Loss of concentration: Difficulty focusing at work and being easily distracted.
  • Isolation: Calling in sick more often, missing scheduled appointments, uninterested in the lives of families, friends, or daily activities.
  • A more negative attitude: Being moody, feelings of depression, and hopelessness. This may include a general sensation of burnout or feeling run down. Believing you're in a crisis, with uncontrollable outbursts and crying.
  • Feeling depersonalized: Feeling detached as if you're outside looking in on yourself. A feeling of detachment from certain situations.
  • Hallucinations: This is most commonly found in people experiencing PTSD or unexpected traumatic events. During this time, a person might experience vivid flashbacks that cause a visceral reaction.
  • Feeling paranoid: Believing someone is watching everything you do or stalking you at your home or work--accompanied by general feelings of not being believed or taken seriously.
  • Thoughts of self-harm and suicide: This is a severe reaction and if you start to have feelings of harming yourself or suicide, contact your doctor immediately. There are also telephone hotlines with trained operators available 24/7.

Do You Cry During a Mental Breakdown?

A nervous breakdown may include crying, but crying by itself doesn't indicate you're having a breakdown. A person will experience a combination of breakdown symptoms during a period of time.

What Are the 5 Stages of Burnout?

The term burnout can describe chronic job-related stress. Many people experience burnout in different ways, but here are five of the most common stages of burnout:

  1. Enthusiasm: You feel as if you can take on the world, and your outlook of the future is optimistic.
  2. Stagnation: Your life starts to revolve around work with not much room for anything else. You fall into a normal routine but begin to resent it.
  3. Frustration: You sense that things are not where you want them to be, and you start to feel more of the emotional and physical effects of stress.
  4. Apathy: You no longer have concern for the work, and you begin to feel hopeless as if there's no way out of your situation. You begin treating the job with indifference.
  5. Intervention: You recognize you need assistance with your mental health, and you talk to a doctor who can refer you to a mental health professional. Together, they will help diagnose your symptoms, provide treatment, and assist you with getting back to your daily routine.

Reaching stages 3 and 4 are tell-tale signs that a nervous breakdown could be in your future.

Almost 25% of Americans aged 18 to 29 have been diagnosed with burnout

Conclusion

The term nervous breakdown is a series of physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms caused by overwhelming feelings of stress. Although the health industry does not consider mental breakdown a technical medical term, it's treated with as much seriousness as any other medical condition.

There are symptoms you can look out for to identify if you're heading in that direction, along with techniques you can use to prevent a breakdown from happening.

Once diagnosed as going through a breakdown, your doctor or mental health professional will provide treatment and medications to get you back on track.

References

  1. SA;, Rapport LJ;Todd RM;Lumley MA;Fisicaro. “The Diagnostic Meaning of ‘Nervous Breakdown’ among Lay Populations.” Journal of Personality Assessment, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9857496/.
  2. SD;, Schneiderman N;Ironson G;Siegel. “Stress and Health: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17716101/.
  3. “CDC - How Much Sleep Do I Need? - Sleep and Sleep Disorders.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 Mar. 2017, www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html.
  4. “Depression: What Is Burnout?” InformedHealth.org [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 18 June 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279286/.
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