Symptoms and Signs of a “Nervous Breakdown”

March 15, 2024

Are you or someone you know on the verge of a mental breakdown? While the terms “mental breakdown” and “nervous breakdown” are not medical diagnoses and can mean different things to different people, your feelings likely include some level of emotional distress. Recognizing when this distress has reached a critical state can help open the doors to recovery. While seeking professional help is crucial, understanding the signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown can empower you to comprehend what's happening and what steps you can take. Join us in exploring the signs and causes of a mental breakdown, as well as how the therapists at Resilience Lab can assist.

Key Takeaways

  • A nervous breakdown can mean different things for different people
  • Sometimes characterized by intense emotional distress, a nervous breakdown can make an individual unable to function normally. It may signal underlying clinically diagnosable mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.
  • Symptoms of a nervous breakdown are divided into physical (such as sleep disturbances and fatigue), psychological (like anxiety and depression), and behavioral (including social withdrawal and neglect of self-care), each uniquely affecting individuals.
  • Effective treatment of a nervous breakdown may involve therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes, while prevention focuses on resilience building through healthy habits and stress management techniques.

What is a Nervous Breakdown or Mental Breakdown?

A nervous breakdown, although not a formal medical term, often describes a situation where someone is unable to function normally due to intense emotional distress. This distress often stems from overwhelming stress, burnout, or anxiety, manifesting in both emotional and physical symptoms that can significantly disrupt daily life. If you or someone you know is on the verge of a mental health crisis then it is vital to seek help as soon as possible.

This state of mental health crisis often indicates clinical diagnoses of depression or anxiety. These conditions, coupled with prolonged stress or a traumatic event, can push an individual to the point of a mental breakdown. Timely help and prevention of further mental health deterioration hinge on recognizing the signs of a nervous breakdown and obtaining an accurate mental health diagnosis.

Despite the daunting nature of a nervous breakdown, the good news is that help is available. Mental health professionals are equipped to diagnose and treat these conditions, helping individuals regain control over their lives. Remember, experiencing a nervous breakdown does not define you; it merely signals a need for help and support.

Symptoms and Signs of a Nervous Breakdown

Recognizing a nervous breakdown is the first step towards recovery. The symptoms can be categorized into three main types: physical, psychological, and behavioral. Each person’s experience with a nervous breakdown can be unique, and the severity of symptoms can vary greatly. Speaking with a mental healthcare professional can be a critical step in improving your mental health.

Physical Symptoms

One of the tell-tale signs of an increased potential for a nervous breakdown is the presence of physical symptoms. This might include disturbances in sleep patterns; individuals may experience difficulties in falling or staying asleep due to intense mental distress. Consistently poor sleep quality and insomnia can significantly interfere with daily tasks and exacerbate other symptoms.

Changes in appetite are also common around a nervous breakdown. Chronic stress can lead to a loss of appetite in some individuals, while others may resort to overeating as a coping mechanism. These changes, if persistent, can have detrimental effects on one’s physical health.

Fatigue, although less obvious, is equally significant as a related physical symptom. Excessive stress can lead to feelings of tiredness, significantly impacting an individual’s energy level. This fatigue is not just physical but also mental, often making it difficult for individuals to carry out their usual activities.

Chronic stress, fatigue and poor sleep, can create plenty of distress for a person on their own. A nervous breakdown can further exacerbate these physical symptoms, creating even more distress. 

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Psychological Symptoms

Psychological symptoms are a paramount part of the nervous breakdown experience. Anxiety, for instance, is a primary psychological symptom that significantly contributes to the onset of a nervous breakdown when left untreated. Anxiety disorders are common among individuals experiencing a nervous breakdown and are often accompanied by intense mental distress.

Depression is another major psychological symptom that can present during a nervous breakdown. It can manifest as:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • A consistent feeling of being in a 'mental fog'
  • Heightened irritability or frustration

A nervous breakdown can also have a substantial impact on concentration and cognitive functions. Individuals may experience a negative focus, difficulty in concentrating, and impairment of the brain’s executive functions. This can significantly affect an individual’s ability to cope with everyday life and perform regular tasks.

The exceptional challenge of living through such emotional turmoil underscores the need for professional help. The therapists at Resilience Lab can provide mental health care that is personalized to your circumstances and your needs.

Behavioral Symptoms

Behavioral symptoms are often a clear indicator of a nervous breakdown. One of the most common behavioral changes is the act of withdrawing from social connections. This includes distancing oneself from familial, social, and professional relationships, which can negatively impact an individual’s life quality and their mental state.

The neglect of self-care is another common behavioral symptom of a nervous breakdown. This includes not maintaining personal hygiene, neglecting physical health, and even neglecting mental health, which can sometimes lead to self-harm. These changes can significantly weaken an individual’s capacity to manage stressors and worsen the intensity of their current state. In someone not currently experiencing a nervous breakdown, such neglect could increase the likelihood of one occurring.

These behavioral changes should not be mistaken for personal failings; they are consequences of intense stress and potential underlying mental health conditions. Recognizing these symptoms and seeking help from a mental health professional can significantly aid in recovery and prevent further deterioration.

Causes of a Nervous Breakdown

A grasp of the causes of a nervous breakdown aids in its prevention and recovery. A nervous breakdown can be triggered by a variety of factors. Stress plays a significant role in the onset of a nervous breakdown. Individual stress thresholds, coupled with inadequate coping mechanisms or limited social support, can lower resilience to stress, increasing susceptibility.

Specific events, such as a stressful or traumatic event, can also trigger a mental health crisis, such as a nervous breakdown, by causing extreme stress to an individual. 

Underlying mental health conditions and mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder can also have a significant impact on a person’s susceptibility to having a nervous breakdown. An underlying mental health condition can be exacerbated by life stressors like divorce or trauma, further elevating the risk of a breakdown.

How is a Nervous Breakdown Treated?

Identifying a nervous breakdown should immediately lead to seeking help and starting the recovery process. Therapy is a crucial part of treating nervous breakdowns. Approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are particularly effective in helping individuals manage symptoms and develop coping strategies. A trained mental health professional will use a variety of talk therapy techniques to help you handle both physical and psychological symptoms and teach you ways to improve your mental health.

In addition to therapy, medication may also be prescribed for treating nervous breakdowns. This could include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like fluoxetine (Prozac) or sertraline (Zoloft), and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as venlafaxine (Effexor) or duloxetine (Cymbalta), along with specific anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants. It's important to speak with your doctor to determine the best treatment option for you, based on your specific needs and health condition.

Therapy and medication can go hand in hand with positive lifestyle changes in managing nervous breakdowns. These changes can enhance the therapeutic outcomes by boosting the overall well-being and resilience of the individual.

Preventing a Nervous Breakdown

A multi-pronged approach is essential in preventing a nervous breakdown. Adopting healthy lifestyle habits plays a critical role. This includes getting a full night of sleep, tailored to what each individual needs, eating nutritious whole foods, engaging in regular exercise, and actively managing or reducing chronic stressors. These steps can significantly contribute to maintaining mental and physical health, thereby helping to prevent a nervous breakdown.

Building resilience is another crucial part of prevention. Resilience Lab therapists can share strategies for building resilience, which can help prevent nervous breakdowns and reduce the severity of psychological symptoms. These strategies are designed to strengthen your ability to handle stress and emotional challenges more effectively.

In general, consider taking the below actions to prevent nervous breakdowns:

  • Seeking help when needed to identify or treat undiagnosed mental health conditions
  • Prioritizing mental health
  • Practicing self-care
  • Managing stress levels
  • Establishing a support system

Recovering From a Nervous Breakdown

Recovery from a nervous breakdown may require addressing the underlying issues, seeking professional help, and acquiring coping skills. It is a process that involves understanding the root causes, treating them appropriately, and developing resilience to better manage future stress.

Therapy plays a critical role in the recovery process from a nervous breakdown. Therapeutic interventions, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), or other cognitive treatment modalities, are designed to disrupt negative thought patterns, manage stress, and incorporate stress-relief strategies and relaxation techniques into daily routines.

In addition to therapy, incorporating lifestyle practices such as the ones below can help to promote healing and develop mental resilience needed to manage stress.

  • Meditation
  • Slow breathing exercises
  • Yoga
  • Participating in support groups
  • Adopting healthy lifestyle habits such as a regular exercise, a regular sleep schedule, healthy eating, and more

With the right support and tools, recovery from a nervous breakdown is possible, and resilience can be built for future stressors.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you or someone you love is suffering from a mental health crisis it is vital that you speak with a professional as soon as possible. Although there are many questions about nervous breakdowns, it is important to speak with a professional who can provide you with a more personalized answer based on your current circumstances. The following answers are a generalized approach to this topic.

How do I know if I'm having a breakdown?

Recognizing a breakdown means noticing major shifts in how you feel and think, particularly when these shifts interfere with your everyday life. Look for signs such as significant mood changes, overwhelming anxiety, deep sadness, a feeling of being overwhelmed or disconnected, and struggling with daily tasks. Physical signs could include feeling very tired, trouble sleeping, or eating more or less than usual. If you or someone you know is showing these signs, it's important to get help from a professional. While these symptoms might suggest a breakdown, they could also point to other mental health issues. A mental health professional can give a correct diagnosis and suggest the right treatment.

What's the difference between a mental breakdown and a nervous breakdown?

The terms "mental breakdown" and "nervous breakdown" are often used interchangeably in everyday language, but they are not official medical diagnoses. They both refer to a period when a person is unable to function normally due to overwhelming stress, anxiety, or depression. However, some people use "mental breakdown" to denote a broader range of mental health issues, potentially including severe conditions like psychosis, whereas "nervous breakdown" is more commonly associated with extreme stress and an inability to cope in daily life.

It's important to understand that these terms are subjective and vary in their interpretation. Professional assessment is crucial for anyone experiencing symptoms associated with either term.

How long do nervous breakdowns last?

The duration of a nervous breakdown varies significantly from person to person, depending on factors like the individual's mental health history, current stressors, and support systems. Typically, they can last from a few hours to several weeks. It's important to note that a nervous breakdown is not a clinical term but rather a common way to describe intense symptoms of stress and an inability to cope with life's challenges.

During this period, individuals might experience overwhelming anxiety, depression, or a feeling of being detached from reality. The key to recovery lies in seeking professional help, implementing stress management techniques, and possibly making lifestyle changes. Each individual's experience and recovery timeline will be unique.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

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