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What are the signs of a nervous breakdown?

Nervous breakdown and mental breakdown are dated terms describing emotional or physical stress that temporarily makes someone unable to function in day-to-day life.

Though once used as a catchall for a wide range of mental illnesses, the medical community no longer uses the term nervous breakdown to describe any specific medical condition.

Nonetheless, a so-called nervous breakdown remains a sign of a recognized, underlying mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

So, the signs and symptoms of what some people may still call a nervous breakdown depend on the underlying medical condition.

Fast facts on a nervous breakdown:

  • The symptoms of a so-called nervous breakdown vary widely between individuals.
  • Medically speaking, there is no such thing as a nervous breakdown.
  • Treatment for a nervous or mental breakdown depends on the cause.

16 signs and symptoms

woman with head in hands
The term nervous breakdown is an outdated term that was used to describe a number of mental health conditions.

Since it is not associated with any specific medical condition, a nervous or mental breakdown does not have any defined symptoms aside from difficulty or inability to function normally.

What it takes for a person to be considered fully functioning differs between cultures, regions, and even families.

However, 16 common signs and symptoms of a nervous or mental breakdown are:

  • feeling anxious, depressed, tearful, or continuously irritable
  • feeling helpless, hopeless, and having low self-esteem
  • withdrawing or avoiding normal social situations
  • calling in sick to work for several days in a row or missing appointments
  • unregulated sleep schedule, either sleeping too much or not enough
  • unhealthy eating and hygiene, often due to people forgetting or not being motivated to eat or clean
  • difficulty focusing or remembering the events of the day
  • feeling continuously emotionally drained and physically exhausted, often without cause
  • lack of motivation and interest in things
  • being unable to get enjoyment or fulfillment from things that normally bring joy or satisfaction
  • unexplained general aches and pains
  • difficulty getting along with or tolerating other people
  • suicidal thoughts or thinking about harming oneself
  • a lack of interest in sex and menstrual changes
  • moving or speaking more slowly than normal
  • frightening flashbacks, severe nightmares, and fight-or-flight symptoms, such as racing heartbeat, dry mouth, and sweating, when there is no threat or danger

In extreme or untreated cases, especially when related to mental health conditions associated with psychosis, symptoms may also include hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and lack of insight.

Treatment and prevention

tai chi group in park
Tai chi encourages controlled breathing, which may help with relaxation.

There are a few things that may help reduce symptoms of emotional and physical stress. Additionally, most of the treatment options for a nervous breakdown also help prevent the condition.

Common treatment and prevention strategies for a nervous breakdown include:

  • seeking counseling, usually cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT
  • talking to a doctor about antidepressant, antianxiety, or antipsychotic medications
  • trying to reduce or resolve sources of stress, such as conflicts at home or workplace demands
  • doing exercises to support mental and physical relaxation, such as deep breathing and meditation
  • doing exercises, such as yoga and tai chi that promote gentle stretching or movement coupled with controlled breathing
  • getting at least 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, or 10 minutes of high-intensity exercise, daily
  • trying to get outside for at least a few minutes daily or finding hobbies that encourage going outdoors
  • talking with friends, family, partners, and roommates about troublesome feelings
  • setting healthy hygiene, sleeping, and eating schedules, and sticking to them
  • seeking out local or online support groups made for people with similar symptoms
  • creating a distraction-free sleeping environment to encourage quality sleep
  • avoiding the excessive use of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine
  • avoiding the use of illicit drugs

Causes and risk factors

Anything that causes more emotional and physical stress than the body can handle can lead to a nervous breakdown or trigger an underlying medical condition.

But there are certain situations, genetic factors, and experiences that are more commonly associated with nervous or mental breakdowns than others.

Causes and risk factors for nervous breakdowns include:

  • extreme grief
  • traumatizing experiences
  • living in an abusive relationship
  • jobs involving high-stress situations
  • jobs associated with emotional burnout
  • family history of mental health conditions
  • severe personal isolation
  • traumatizing and unrelenting stress, such as in war
  • severe social conflict, especially if impacting work and home life
  • severe or chronic medical conditions or injuries

Diagnosis

It is no longer a recognized medical term, so, technically, there is no way to diagnose a nervous breakdown.

A doctor or, more commonly, a mental health professional, will try to identify contributing factors or medical conditions that may be causing the so-called nervous breakdown. They will do this by asking questions about symptoms, performing a physical exam, and reviewing an individual s medical history.

When to see a doctor

business man looking overwhelmed with work
Being in a high stress job is a common risk factor for a mental breakdown.

It is a good idea to talk with a doctor anytime physical or emotional stress interferes with day-to-day life, routines, or activities.

But, often people experiencing so-called nervous breakdown are not able to recognize the extent of their symptoms or that they may need help.

Unfortunately, many people are reluctant to seek outside help for mental conditions out of fear that they will be judged. They may also think that what is happening to them is somehow their fault, or that there are no treatment options available.

If a loved one, friend, or roommate is showing several of the signs of a nervous breakdown, they should be encouraged to seek medical help or be given support to do so.

Related conditions

Medical conditions that can cause symptoms commonly associated with so-called nervous breakdowns include:

  • clinical depression or anxiety-based illness
  • complex grief
  • PTSD or acute stress disorder ASD
  • adjustment disorders
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • dissociative identity disorder DID
  • chronic pain and inflammatory conditions

Though not an official term, a nervous breakdown is often loosely used to describe conditions that involve many temporarily disabling mental and physical symptoms, especially when the cause is unknown.

Takeaway

Most people experience periods of extreme sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness from time to time, especially after very stressful events.

But when someone becomes unable to perform day-to-day tasks, withdraws from society, or begins to consider harming themselves, they need to have medical help.

Management medications and therapies exist to help treat most of the medical conditions associated with nervous breakdowns.