What Is a Nervous Breakdown?

Reviewed on 9/23/2020

What Are Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown?

"Nervous breakdown" is not a medical term, but describes a mental health crisis that prevents someone from functioning in daily life. This is usually a result of depression or anxiety.

“Nervous breakdown” is not a medical term, but it describes a mental health crisis and is a general term that refers to a person overwhelmed by anxiety, worry, or stress.

A nervous breakdown may involve both mental/emotional and physical symptoms. 

Mental/emotional symptoms of a nervous breakdown may include:

  • Isolation or withdrawal from family and friends or usual daily activities
  • Avoiding social functions
  • Calling in sick to work
  • Inability to concentrate   
  • Mood changes 
  • Depression
  • Feeling burned out
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Helplessness
  • Crying
  • Not eating properly
  • Not taking care of personal hygiene
  • Depersonalization, which is not feeling like one’s normal self, or feeling detached from situations
  • Hallucinations  
  • Paranoia   
  • Thoughts of self-harm: seek immediate medical attention if this occurs

Physical symptoms of a nervous breakdown may include:

  • Insomnia  
  • Exhaustion 
  • Frequent illnesses
  • Headaches 
  • Dizzy spells
  • Muscle pain in the jaw, neck, or back due to muscle tension
  • Stomach cramps and irregular bowel movements
  • Fast heartbeat (palpitations)
  • Tightness across the chest or a lump in the throat, feeling like it is difficult to breathe (panic attack)
  • Cold sweats or hot flashes

What Causes a Nervous Breakdown?

A nervous breakdown may be triggered by both specific events that cause extreme stress or as a product of a gradual build-up of stress to a point where a person is no longer able to cope.

Triggers for a nervous breakdown may include:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Death of a pet
  • Work pressures
  • Relationship problems
  • Divorce
  • Financial difficulties
  • Unemployment
  • Recent illness or injury

Certain factors may cause some people to be more susceptible to having a nervous breakdown, such as: 

  • A personal or family history of anxiety disorders
  • A stressful job
  • Severe medical conditions
  • Lack of sleep 
  • Inability to manage stress effectively

How Is a Nervous Breakdown Diagnosed?

A nervous breakdown and other anxiety disorders may be diagnosed with a psychological evaluation.

What Is the Treatment for a Nervous Breakdown?

Treatment for a nervous breakdown can include lifestyle changes, medications, and counseling, depending on the patient’s situation and diagnosis. 

Lifestyle changes that can help patients better cope with stress include:

  • Healthy diet
  • Regular exercise
  • Practicing good sleep habits
  • Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine
  • Avoiding mood-altering substances like alcohol and other recreational drugs
  • Practicing stress reduction methods such as relaxation, mediation, yoga, and breathing exercises
  • Talking to a mental health counselor 

In some cases, a nervous breakdown may be a sign of depression, an anxiety disorder, or other mental illness, in which case medications and therapy may be indicated. Medications may include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or antipsychotic medications. 


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Reviewed on 9/23/2020