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Signs of a Nervous Breakdown

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 08, 2020

What Is a Nervous Breakdown?

A nervous breakdown (also called a mental breakdown) is a term that describes a period of extreme mental or emotional stress. The stress is so great that the person is unable to perform normal day-to-day activities. 

The term “nervous breakdown” isn’t a clinical one. Nor is it a mental health disorder. In the past, it was used to describe many different mental health conditions, but it’s no longer used by professionals today. Even so, this doesn’t mean that a nervous breakdown is a healthy response to stress. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and it can sometimes indicate an underlying problem such as depression or anxiety

There is no one cause of a nervous breakdown. Anything that leads to excessive stress can trigger it. In general, feeling stress and being unable to cope with it may lead to feeling so overwhelmed that you can’t perform your normal daily functions. Some things that might trigger a nervous breakdown include:

  • A sudden tragedy
  • A major life change
  • Constant stress at work (sometimes referred to as “burnout”)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression 
  • Poor sleep
  • Abuse
  • Financial problems

Experiencing some stress is a normal part of life. When the feelings become too overwhelming, they can contribute to a mental breakdown.

While these breakdowns can be scary and debilitating, there are things that you can do. Recognizing the signs, taking preventative action, and getting treatment can help. 

Signs of a Nervous Breakdown

A nervous breakdown leads to the inability to function normally, at least temporarily. Several signs, however, can indicate that you, or someone you know, might be on the path toward experiencing overwhelming stress. Here are some of the signs and symptoms to watch out for:

Feeling Symptoms of Anxiety or Depression

Anxious or depressive feelings and actions are common responses to stress. These include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Fea rfulness
  • Irritability
  • Worrying
  • Feeling helpless
  • Getting angry easily
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Losing interest in your favorite activities
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

When the stress becomes unbearable, it can lead to a nervous breakdown. 

Trouble Concentrating

Studies have shown that stress affects both your mind and your body. Long-term stress can lead to structural changes in the brain, which can affect your memory and lead to difficulty concentrating. In extreme cases, too much cortisol can even lead to memory loss.

Insomnia 

For some people, excessive stress may cause insomnia, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. When you can’t sleep, your brain and body can’t recover from stress, which, in turn, can lead to worsening stress and anxiety. A lack of sleep can also affect your physical health as well as your mental performance. Others may respond to stress by oversleeping, which may also lead to mental and physical problems. 

Extreme Fatigue

Too much stress may leave you feeling extreme fatigue. You may feel tired because you’re not sleeping enough, or you may even feel tired because you’re sleeping too much. Over time, chronic exhaustion along with stress can lead to a mental breakdown. 

Changes in Appetite

Stress can bring about changes in your appetite. Some people deal with stress by overeating, which can lead to unwanted weight gain. For others, stress can lead to appetite loss.

Digestive Issues

Stress and anxiety can lead to stomach issues like cramps, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. If you have irritable bowel syndrome, stress may trigger flare-ups, which can cause digestive discomfort. If you’re stressed and starting to notice any of these symptoms, it could be a sign that you’re on your way to a nervous breakdown. 

Hallucinations

In some instances, extreme stress can even cause hallucinations. You might hear or see things that aren’t really there.

Treating a Nervous Breakdown

It’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by life’s demands. If you’re beginning to feel as though your stress is becoming too much, talk to your doctor. They may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Your doctor may also be able to provide treatment for the physical symptoms.

The right treatment for a nervous breakdown depends mainly upon its cause and the individual. Some common treatments include:

Lifestyle Changes

Mental fatigue is a common feature of a mental breakdown. For some, getting rest and de-stressing can be an effective home remedy. Changes might include such things as:

  • Reducing your number of daily obligations
  • Taking a walk or adding some form of exercise to your routine
  • Eating a healthful diet
  • Taking a break when you need it
  • Practicing meditation
  • Spending time in nature

Medication

Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication to help with the symptoms of a nervous breakdown. If your stress is causing insomnia, you may be prescribed a sleep aid. Disruptions in sleep can worsen stress and anxiety, which only worsen your insomnia. Sleep aids can help to break the sleeplessness cycle and reduce your stress.

Psychotherapy

Also known as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy helps you to work through your nervous breakdown and reduces your risk of experiencing another one. Speaking with a professional can help you to process your thoughts and create solutions that alleviate your stress and anxiety.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “What Does It Mean to Have a Nervous Breakdown?”

Bridges to Recovery: “Types of Nervous Breakdowns.”

Bridges to Recovery: “What Causes a Nervous Breakdown?”

University of Rochester Medical Center: “Understanding Your Response to Stress.”

EXCLI Journal: “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.”

The American Journal of Psychiatry: “Effects of Chronic Stress on Memory Decline in Cognitively Normal and Mildly Impaired Older Adults.”

Current Psychiatry Reports: “Insomnia and Its Impact on Physical and Mental Health.”

PloS One: “The Risks of Sleeping “Too Much.” Survey of a National Representative Sample of 24671 Adults (INPES Health Barometer).”

Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing: “Are You Tired From…Too Much Sleep?”

Minerva Endocrinologica: “Stress and Eating Behaviors.”

Anxiety Centre: “Lack of Appetite, Loss of Appetite.”

American Psychological Association: “Stress Effects on the Body: Gastrointestinal System.”

Consciousness and Cognition: “How Anxiety Induces Verbal Hallucinations.”

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