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What is a Nervous Breakdown, and Should You Be Worried?

by Andrea M. Darcy

“I’m going to have a nervous breakdown” might be something you’ve shouted dramatically while under duress, or even secretly worried about when life was just all a bit too much.

But what is a nervous breakdown, really? And how do you know if you or someone you love is on their way towards one?

What is a nervous breakdown?

It is important to understand that a nervous breakdown is not actually an officially recognised mental health diagnosis. It is presently just an umbrella term to describe a loose group of symptoms.

A nervous breakdown does, however, inevitably involve other mental health conditions or disorders that are diagnosable. So in this way often acts as a red flag that you require support and it’s time to take your mental wellbeing seriously.

A nervous breakdown (also called a ‘mental breakdown’) generally refers to a sudden, acute, but ultimately time-limited crisis in mental health that means for a certain time you are unable to carry on with your everyday life. It’s that feeling of ‘hitting rock bottom’.

What triggers a mental breakdown?

There is no exact route to having a nervous breakdown but they generally tend to have a catalyst or a series of catalysts. Things like the below are often cited as triggers:

There is also no exact route to recovery. For some, a mental breakdown lasts a few days or a week. For others, month. It does not last forever, though, and with the right help you will be able to rebuild your life again.

How do I know if I am having a mental breakdown?

In general, a nervous breakdown is preceded by extreme stress and a combination of depression and anxiety that leaves you feeling vulnerable. Your will also suffer from negative thinking, often obsessively so. You might also have a sense of being outside of reality, called ‘disassociation‘. Your body might be giving you signs of overwhelm, too, including things like muscle tension, unexplained aches, stomach pains, headaches, and ongoing colds and flu.

The main symptom you are in the middle of a breakdown is a lapse in your mental wellbeing leaving you unable to function and properly carry out your day-to-day routines such as going to work, managing your family, and taking care of yourself.

For some this might look like not being able to get out of bed because they are so mired in worry and fear.

For others it can just be such mental confusion they can’t think straight and feel like they are floating out of their body. Their world might be crumbling about them over a period of weeks and they might be failing more and more to upkeep their social roles (work, friend, parent, leader) or acting strongly out of character in ways that confuse them.

Other related symptoms

Accompanying symptoms of a mental breakdown can again include depression and anxiety, as well as the below:

Related mental health conditions to a nervous breakdown

A nervous breakdown often consists of a series of other mental health conditions colluding. For example, you might be depressed or suffer from anxiety, severe stress, and/or sleeping problems, and then find yourself having a breakdown.

Often, what seems a breakdown can be another diagnosable mental health issue in disguise. These can include:

This is why it is so important to seek help if you feel you are having a nervous breakdown – you might discover you have another disorder as well that can improve greatly with the right treatment.

What is the recommended treatment for a mental breakdown?

It is absolutely possible to make a recovery from a breakdown and get back to your daily routine. Of course it can take time to get your life back on track.

Some even find that post nervous breakdown and seeking help, their life improves in ways they didn’t see as possible beforehand. You might find you know yourself better, have more compassion for yourself, or that a personality disorder that gets diagnosed due to seeking help responds well to treatment and your life gets easier after years of struggle.

While medication might be prescribed if your nervous breakdown is related to another mental health condition that it is known to alleviate, the most common treatment for a nervous breakdown is talking therapies with a counsellor or psychotherapist. A therapist will help you get to the heart of what is causing you stress, provide warm understanding, as well as help you find coping methods that work for you.

Many kinds of therapy can help, from psychodynamic psychotherapy, which delves into the way your past drives your behaviours in the present, to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which has a focus on the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

It can be very useful to also try relaxation techniques. Ones that are used by therapists but that you can try by yourself include mindfulness and progressive muscle relaxation. Continuing with methods such as these can help you feel more relaxed on a daily basis, which is thought to make it far less likely you will have another breakdown in the future.

Things that can be helpful when recovering from a nervous breakdown can also include good self-care, journaling, exercising, and reading books that work to make you feel better (‘bibliotherapy‘).

Do not try to go it alone if you are suffering from a mental breakdown. Aside from the support of a professional, some find support groups helpful, and others turn to the support of friends and loved ones they trust. There are also several mental health hotlines in the UK that can offer a friendly voice in times of need such as the Good Samaritans.

Why me?

It’s important not to think there is something inherently wrong with you if you have a breakdown. While it has been found that some people might be more sensitive and genetically inclined to a nervous breakdown, and that a difficult childhood might have made you more sensitive to one, we all have our breaking point. With the right set of circumstances almost anyone would have a breakdown. What is important is to seek the support you need.


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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress

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