Nervous Breakdown: What It Means and How to Seek Help

Medically Reviewed By Kendra Kubala, PsyD
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A nervous breakdown refers to an acute attack of anxiety that disrupts your daily life. This may occur in people who have underlying anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder. When a nervous breakdown happens, you may feel like you lose control of your feelings and give in to stress, anxiety, or worry. Though the term “nervous breakdown” has origins in early 20th century America, it is not a clinically recognized condition or diagnosis. Instead, it has become a colloquial phrase to describe when someone has become overwhelmed by mental health symptoms.

Research published in 1998 in the Journal of Personal Assessment finds that people experiencing what were referred to as nervous breakdowns most often had symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The same research also finds a link between stressful events — such as issues in personal relationships, problems at work, or financial loss — and the onset of a nervous breakdown.

This article will discuss the symptoms associated with a nervous or mental breakdown. It will also provide information about risk factors and how to seek treatment for mental health conditions.

What are the symptoms of a nervous breakdown?

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Symptoms of a nervous breakdown can become so overwhelming that a person can no longer carry out typical daily activities. It is important to notice the signs of a nervous breakdown — in yourself or someone else — in order to find effective treatment as quickly as possible.

The experience of a nervous breakdown can have both emotional or psychological and physical symptoms, as follows:

Emotional symptoms of nervous breakdowns

During a nervous breakdown, you may experience psychological symptoms, such as:

  • intense feelings of anxiety, worry, fear, or stress
  • extreme moods, including feeling depressed or burnt out
  • feeling a sense of helplessness
  • crying
  • feeling unable to make decisions
  • lack of concentration or focus
  • sense of dissociation, feeling separate from yourself
  • hallucinations, seeing or hearing things that are not there
  • delusions, believing in things that are not real
  • paranoia, a sense that someone is watching or following you
  • feelings of isolation from friends and loved ones

Physical symptoms of nervous breakdowns

People experiencing a mental breakdown may also have physical symptoms, including:

Nervous breakdown vs. panic attack

The symptoms associated with a nervous breakdown and those of a panic attack have some similarities, primarily in that both can produce intense physical and emotional sensations.

However, a panic attack comes on very suddenly and peaks after a few minutes. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA) explains that people often mistake panic attacks for heart attacks and believe they may be dying. Symptoms of a panic attack typically subside after about 10 minutes.

A nervous breakdown can last over a period of time and temporarily interferes with a person’s ability to function in multiple areas of their life.

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, a nervous breakdown can indicate a serious condition that requires immediate evaluation in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, including an inability to care for your basic needs and thoughts of self-harm, suicide, or harming others.

Suicide prevention and crisis support

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.

What causes a nervous breakdown?

Researchers have linked the symptoms of a nervous breakdown to underlying mental health conditions, specifically anxiety and depression. Extreme stress can also trigger the onset of a nervous breakdown.

Anxiety disorders that can lead to a nervous breakdown

Common anxiety disorders that may lead to a nervous breakdown include:

Other causes of a nervous breakdown

Nervous breakdowns may also result from a variety of other situations, including:

  • depression
  • drug or alcohol misuse
  • long term stress
  • recalling stressful memories
  • stressful events

What are the risk factors for a nervous breakdown?

A number of factors increase the risk of having a nervous breakdown. Not all people with risk factors will have a nervous breakdown. Risk factors for nervous breakdowns include:

  • family history of anxiety disorders
  • inadequate sleep and relaxation
  • ongoing stress, such as stress from work
  • personal history of anxiety disorders
  • recent illness or injury
  • recent stressful life event, such as divorce or financial problems
  • sense of inadequate support from others
  • serious financial concerns, such as bankruptcy or foreclosure

Talk with your primary care doctor or another health professional if you have concerns about your individual risk factors for a nervous breakdown. They can refer you to a counselor, psychiatrist, or another mental health practitioner who can evaluate your symptoms and discuss treatment options.

What are treatments for a nervous breakdown?

Effective treatment for a nervous breakdown and other associated conditions is available. Your mental health professional can discuss treatment options that can help you manage your symptoms and return to your typical daily activities.

Treatments for a nervous breakdown may address any underlying mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders. You can also take steps to manage your exposure and response to stressful events.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a process that can help you learn to reframe unconstructive thoughts or behaviors and find more effective ways of coping with them.

CBT can involve exposure therapy, role-playing, and learning mind relaxation techniques. Your psychologist or therapist will talk with you about your individual goals and develop a CBT program that is right for you.

Medications

Psychiatrists may prescribe medications to treat underlying anxiety or depression, including:

  • Antidepressants: These medications work by improving the balance of chemicals in your brain. Options include fluoxetine (Prozac), escitalopram (Lexapro), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft).
  • Benzodiazepines: These medications can quickly reduce the symptoms of anxiety and panic attack. However, some people can develop an addiction to them. Doctors often prescribe benzodiazepines for a short period time.
  • Beta-blockers: Doctors typically use these to treat high blood pressure. However, beta-blockers can also suppress the physical response that causes anxiety symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, flushing, and shaking.

Lifestyle modifications to minimize nervous breakdowns

In addition to following the treatment plan developed by your healthcare team, you may be able to lessen the frequency and severity of nervous breakdowns by:

  • avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and harmful drugs
  • getting counseling for stress management
  • getting regular exercise
  • practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation
  • getting regular, quality sleep

Your psychiatrist, therapist, or another mental health professional will consider your individual symptoms and diagnosis when discussing treatment options.

Never stop taking any prescribed medication without talking with your doctor first. If you experience challenging side effects, you and your doctor can work together to manage them or find alternate therapies.

Summary

The term “nervous breakdown” is not a medical diagnosis. However, the phrase has come to mean an overwhelming anxiety attack that disrupts the ability to carry out daily activities. The experience of a nervous breakdown may occur after a period of time living with an anxiety disorder.

A nervous breakdown includes emotional symptoms, such as extreme worry, anxiety, or fear; a sense of helplessness; crying; and feeling dissociated from oneself. It can also include physical symptoms, including rapid heart rate, chest tightness, sweating, and difficulty breathing.

Research has found that the primary factors that trigger a nervous breakdown are stress and underlying conditions, such as anxiety or depression.

Treatment is available for anxiety disorders that can lead to a nervous breakdown. If you or someone you know is experiencing an overwhelming sense of anxiety or feeling overcome by mental health symptoms, contact your primary care doctor. In cases of possible self-harm, suicide, or harm to others, call 911.

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Medical Reviewer: Kendra Kubala, PsyD
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 28
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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