Signs and Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown

It's not an official clinical term—but it is a serious issue.

I'm having a nervous breakdown. This stress is giving me a mental breakdown. You may have uttered one of these phrases (or at least thought them) when you've been overwrought with stress and ready to snap. The term "nervous breakdown"—sometimes called a "mental breakdown" in the past—is often used to describe the feeling of falling apart. But what is a nervous breakdown, exactly? And what should you do when you feel like you're having one?

It turns out "nervous breakdown" isn't a clinical term, and it's not considered a mental illness, Erin Engle, PsyD, assistant professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, told Health.

Instead, it's more of a catchall term that can reference a number of psychological ailments—but it can still be a serious issue. "[A nervous breakdown] is a situation in which a person cannot function normally because of overwhelming stress," Engle said. Learn the signs and symptoms of nervous breakdowns, and what you can do if you or someone you know may be experiencing one.

Signs and Symptoms

Because a nervous breakdown isn't a specific clinical diagnosis, symptoms will vary from person to person and even culture to culture. "Our bodies and minds respond to stress in different ways," Engle said. Some of the most common signs that someone is feeling overwhelmed and not having an entirely healthy response to stress include:

Anxiety or depression

"Anxiety and depression are common, common reactions [to stress]," Engle said. "Where you get into problems is when that stressor is ongoing and persistent, and the person's coping resources are overwhelmed." If you're headed for a nervous breakdown, you might feel weepy, or even experience episodes of uncontrollable crying, Engle said. Some people suddenly struggle with self-esteem and confidence. "Feeling guilt is a big one," Engle added.

Sleeping too much or not enough

A change in your sleep habits is another warning sign, Engle said. "Some people find that they go into sleep overdrive," Engle said. "Sleep becomes an escape." Others may develop insomnia because their brain is in overdrive. They may lay awake at night ruminating, Engle said, "mentally rehearsing situations over and over again that have no solution."

Fatigue

Extreme tiredness could also be a clue you're stressed to the max. You might even feel weakness in your body, Engle said. Activities you previously handled with ease may become increasingly difficult. And things that used to bring you joy may lose their appeal. That includes sex, Engle said. Loss of libido is commonly linked to stress.

Changes in appetite

"Maybe you're not eating, or conversely, you might be overeating," Engle said. Research published in 2019 in Physiology and Behavior confirmed that the stress hormone cortisol can trigger cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods. What's more, when you're in the middle of a breakdown, you may be less motivated to prep healthy meals. "There's less ability to care for oneself in the way one typically would," Engle said.

Physical discomfort

Discomfort, like headaches or stomachaches, can be signs of a nervous breakdown. "For some people, there might be a GI component," Engle said, such as diarrhea or constipation. A 2019 review in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences verified that it's no secret that stress can do a number on your gut. And a large research study published in 2015 in The Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility stated that stress is known to cause a variety of problems with digestion.

Brain fog

Are you having trouble concentrating? Or just feel like you're not thinking clearly? There are often cognitive symptoms with a nervous breakdown, Engle said, which might include anything from difficulty with problem-solving and indecisiveness to a sense of disorientation and memory loss.

Trouble breathing

Keep an eye out for classic signs of a panic attack too. According to a 2022 review published in The Irish Journal of Medical Science, this can include tightness in your chest and rapid breathing. Research published in 2022 in The Journal of Physical Therapy Science noted that breathing exercises designed to slow down your breath can provide fast relief. But if you experience severe trouble breathing or if it happens on a regular basis, it's important to address the root of the problem.

Causes

As difficult as it is to define a nervous breakdown, it's just as difficult to understand what may cause one. According to a review published in 2014 in The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, a number of things can contribute to what might be referred to as a nervous breakdown—mainly including high-stress events like a bad breakup, money issues, grief, or even psychological burnout.

The review explained that anyone can have a nervous breakdown when life circumstances become too much to handle and that an individual's coping skills come into play here too—because everyone handles stress differently, their responses to that stress will also be different. A person's support system to handle those stressors matters, as well.

And research published in 2019 in Psychoneuroendocrinology concluded that sometimes, a so-called nervous breakdown can indicate an underlying mental health problem—like anxiety or depression—that needs psychiatric attention.

What To Do if You Think You're Having a Nervous Breakdown

This too depends on the specific person and situation they're in. If someone is experiencing a lower level of stress but still feels out of sorts, it may be a good idea to prioritize self-care and engage in healthy coping mechanisms, like exercising or practicing a favorite hobby. Getting an adequate amount of sleep, engaging in healthy eating habits, and getting enough time with friends and family can help, too.

However, if a person is exhibiting more severe symptoms that seem to be impinging on their daily life, it's a good idea to seek psychological help—something that no one should ever be afraid to seek out. "I always encourage someone to seek out the chance to speak with, or meet with, either a therapist, a psychologist or a social worker—a licensed mental health professional," Engle said. "Going to get help is one of the most important things you can do." And you can work with a mental health professional in person, or virtually—whatever feels right for you.

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