A nervous breakdown can happen to anyone, including someone who seems to have a high level of emotional resilience. People have different physiological and biological makeup, some are naturally able to cope with heavy or extreme stress, while others are easily overwhelmed. It does not mean you are weak, it only tells how much the brain can take. Life stressors and challenges can eventually take their toll. When they do, even those who are considered highly resilient may experience a nervous breakdown.
What Does It Mean to Have a Nervous Breakdown?
A nervous breakdown, also called mental breakdown, refers to the inability to perform functions of daily life due to intense psychological distress. In a wider context, the term also means the inability to cope with life’s challenges.
In the past, mental health experts used many terms such as depression, anxiety, and acute stress disorder to refer to a nervous breakdown. The term is no longer used because it has not been recognized as a mental health disorder by the American Psychiatry Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). But due to its symptoms, it has gained more and more recognition and acceptance in the medical community.
Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown
Various physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms are present when someone is dealing with a breakdown. Your symptoms may be mild to severe and differ from someone else’s depending on the underlying cause of the breakdown. Etiology may include mental health disorders such as anxiety disorder, depression, or schizophrenia. And you might or might not experience all of the symptoms listed below:
Depressive symptoms, such as hopelessness or helplessness.
Frequent thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Sudden angry outbursts or extreme mood swings.
Insomnia (trouble falling or staying asleep).
Anxiety, panic attacks, or shakiness.
Feeling physically unwell.
Unexplained or general aches and pains.
Difficulty thinking, focusing, remembering, or making decisions.
Psychosis, e.g., paranoia, hallucinations, or delusions.
Intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of a traumatic event are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
People experiencing a nervous breakdown may show symptoms that are similar to clinical depression. They may neglect their hygiene, health, or sleep or eat poorly. They may engage in certain avoidance behaviors like:
Withdrawing from family, friends, and co-workers
Isolating themselves or hiding “away from the world”
Avoiding family time or social functions or engagements
Avoiding work or school by saying they’re ill
What Causes a Nervous Breakdown?
If you ever hear someone say, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown,” they are saying they are under severe stress that is too much to bear. External stressors that can trigger a nervous breakdown include:
Chronic work or relationship stress.
Persistent stress from raising children.
Serious financial problems.
Being on the brink of losing your home or custody of your kids.
A major life event such as divorce or disability.
Death of a loved one.
Chronic medical conditions.
Chronic sleep deprivation or insomnia.
Alcohol or drug abuse.
Trauma associated with physical or sexual abuse, sexual orientation (LGBTQ+), racism, or war.
Individuals who have a greater chance of a mental breakdown include those with a personal or family history of anxiety disorders. Other contributing factors include poor coping skills, poor interpersonal relationships, lack of social support, lack of self-care, and unhealthy coping strategies, e.g., alcohol drinking or drug abuse. The onset of a nervous breakdown may also stem from an undiagnosed or untreated mental disorder.
The Meaning of a Nervous Breakdown in Different Cultures
“Nervous breakdown” and “mental breakdown” are outdated medical terms. Regardless, the meaning varies from culture to culture, whenever or wherever they are still used. Experts agree that regardless of culture, a “nervous breakdown” means that the individual is no longer able to do his “normal functioning” due to extreme emotional or psychological distress or a psychiatric condition.
As the World Health Organization (WHO) points out, mental health goes beyond the absence of mental disorders. The WHO defines it as “a state of well-being” that involves realizing your abilities and having the ability to cope with the normal stresses of life. It also means you can work productively and fruitfully and can contribute to your community. That’s the essence of “normal functioning.”
Nervous Breakdown and Substance Abuse
Similar to depression, a nervous breakdown can push someone to abuse alcohol, prescription drugs, or illicit drugs. Conversely, substance use disorder is sometimes an underlying reason for a mental breakdown. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) confirms the connection between substance use disorders and mental health disorders.
Experts agree that people with mental health problems are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol or develop a substance use disorder (SUD). In such cases, they can benefit from substance use disorder treatment within a rehab setting. It’s important to treat both the SUD (also considered a mental health disorder) and the symptoms of a nervous breakdown. This approach is called dual diagnosis treatment and is done to increase the individual’s chance of long-term recovery.
Getting Help During a Nervous Breakdown
Speak with your doctor if you suspect you may be experiencing a nervous breakdown after going over the symptoms. Another option is to reach out to a mental health professional. Early intervention and treatment can help prevent worsening of your symptoms, anxiety disorder, clinical depression, or psychosis.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a proven evidence-based treatment designed to help you manage stress and improve your coping skills. Medication therapy, e.g., antidepressants or anxiety medications, may be prescribed to treat certain symptoms. The overall goal of treatment is to help you to regain normal functioning.
Improving the way you handle stress can help reduce the physical and emotional effects. Here are some things you can do besides talking to your doctor or therapist:
Manage your stress: Determine which responsibilities you’re comfortable taking on now and which can wait until you feel better. While you may be unable to avoid stress from work or family obligations, try to manage it. Stress-management techniques include deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. Use these techniques to relax your body and mind and reduce the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) produced by the body due to stress.
Make sleep your friend: Quality sleep nightly is a natural therapy for the brain and body. Decide on a bedtime routine that will allow you to unwind before bed and get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep at night.
Embrace self-care: Poor lifestyle habits contribute to reduced physical and mental health. You can take control of your mental health by eating nutritious foods and staying physically active. Self-care also involves avoiding alcohol, drugs, and prescription drug misuse.
Take a break: Carve out some “me time” daily for connecting with loved ones or enjoying the outdoors. Soak up the early morning or late afternoon sunlight if possible. Sunlight helps boost the mood hormone in the brain called serotonin.
You are not alone in your fight to overcome a nervous breakdown. Anyone can experience this mental health crisis, mental health is not static. It can change over time for multiple reasons and lead to a loss of ability to function. The important thing is recognizing that it’s happening and seeking help right away.
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5: A Quick Glance
nimh.nih.gov – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
tandfonline.com – The Diagnostic Meaning of ‘Nervous Breakdown’ Among Lay Populations
who.int – Mental Health: Strengthening Our Response
drugabuse.gov – Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness
sunshinebehavioralhealth.com – Inpatient Alcohol Rehab
About the Author
Dr. Arturo Osorio is a licensed physician practicing in Nicaragua. Dr. Osorio went to Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (León), where he got a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery Degree. He has been practicing medicine in public hospital and private clinics since 2018.