“Nervous breakdown” and “mental breakdown” are dated terms. They refer to stress temporarily preventing a person from feeling that they can function day to day.
People once used the term “nervous breakdown” to describe a wide range of mental illnesses.
The medical community no longer uses the term, but a so-called nervous breakdown remains a sign of an underlying mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The exact features of what people might call a nervous breakdown vary from person to person, depending on the underlying health issue responsible.
A nervous or mental breakdown does not have any defined symptoms, aside from difficulty or inability to function “normally.”
But what qualifies as functioning normally or being “fully functioning” differs among people from different regions, cultures, and even families.
The characteristics of a breakdown depend on the underlying health issue and how the person generally experiences stress. However, below are 21 common features of a nervous breakdown:
- feeling anxious, depressed, tearful, or irritable
- feeling emotionally and physically exhausted
- experiencing agitation and muscle tension
- sleeping too much or too little
- having unexplained, general aches and pains
- trembling and shaking
- feeling helpless, hopeless, and having low self-esteem
- moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- withdrawing, or avoiding routine social situations
- frequently calling in sick to work or missing appointments
- neglecting or forgetting to eat or wash
- lacking motivation and interest
- having difficulty getting along with or tolerating other people
- losing interest in sex
- having difficulty thinking, focusing, or remembering
- having physical indications of a fight-or-flight response — such as dry mouth and sweating — when there is no threat
- having cardiovascular symptoms, such as a racing or irregular heartbeat
- experiencing more frequent infections, as stress can affect the immune system
- experiencing changes in appetite and weight
- having gastrointestinal symptoms
- having suicidal thoughts or thinking about harming oneself
Also, some people experience psychosis, which may involve hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and a lack of insight.
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 call 800-799-4889.
There are several ways to reduce the emotional and physical effects of stress.
Common strategies include:
- receiving counseling — usually cognitive behavioral therapy, which is often called CBT
- talking to a doctor about antidepressant, antianxiety, or antipsychotic medications
- taking steps to reduce or resolve sources of stress, such as conflicts at home or workplace demands
- practicing deep breathing and meditation exercises to support mental and physical relaxation
- doing activities, such as yoga and tai chi, that promote gentle movement or stretching and controlled breathing
- getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, broken up into sessions of around 20 minutes a day
- spending time outdoors, walking or doing a hobby
- talking with friends, family, partners, and roommates about troublesome feelings
- waking up, eating, and exercising on a consistent schedule
- seeking out local or online support groups for people with similar experiences
- creating a comfortable home environment that encourages quality sleep
- limiting the intake of caffeine and alcohol
- avoiding tobacco and recreational drugs
- seeking treatment for any mental or physical health conditions
Anything that causes more stress than the body can handle may lead to a nervous breakdown or trigger symptoms of an underlying mental health condition.
Some common causes and risk factors include:
- conflict at work and in the home
- grief and bereavement
- the loss of a home, a source of income, or a relationship
- a job that involves high-stress situations
- a family history of mental health conditions
- severe or chronic medical conditions or injuries
- traumatic events and experiences
- an abusive relationship
- identifying as LGBTQIA and not having family or community support
- race-based trauma
- persistent stress, as in war
One mental health issue that may be involved is acute stress disorder (ASD). According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, ASD is a reaction to stress that occurs 3 days to 1 month after a traumatic event. If it lasts longer than 1 month, a doctor may diagnose PTSD.
A nervous breakdown is not a recognized medical term, so technically, there is no way to diagnose it.
A person who feels overwhelmed by stress or feelings of anxiety or who feels unable to carry on their daily life should see a doctor, who can help.
The doctor will try to identify any factors or medical conditions that may be causing or contributing to the problem.
They will do this by:
- asking about symptoms and lifestyle factors
- performing a physical exam
- reviewing the person’s medical history
They may also perform tests to rule out a physical condition.
Doctors use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition to diagnose mental health conditions, including various types of anxiety. These criteria help them identify the cause of the problem and a suitable approach to treatment.
It is a good idea to see a healthcare provider if stress interferes with any day-to-day routines or activities.
Various treatments can help people recover from the emotional and physical symptoms of stress, anxiety, and related issues.
However, a person often hesitates to seek professional help. They may not realize that they are unwell, doubt that treatment is effective, or hesitate due to perceived stigma.
If anyone shows signs of severe stress, friends and family members should encourage the person to seek professional care and support them in doing so.
Health issues that can cause symptoms commonly associated with nervous breakdowns include:
Most people experience periods of stress, anxiety, and hopelessness from time to time, especially after very stressful events.
But if symptoms affect the ability to perform routine tasks, or if the person starts to withdraw socially, it is a good idea to receive professional care. This is especially crucial if the person is considering harming themselves.
Medication, counseling, and other treatments can address and resolve what people refer to as a nervous breakdown.