Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/13/2022
You’ve probably heard people talk about having a nervous breakdown. Or perhaps you’ve seen a movie that depicted a really intense scene where a character has one and wonder if that’s what really occurs during a mental health crisis.
A mental breakdown can look different from person to person, but there are some psychological and physical symptoms that tend to occur.
If you feel like you may be experiencing common signs of a nervous breakdown, you should speak with a mental health professional. Until then, read on to learn more about what may cause this mental health condition and what to do if you’re having one.
The phrase “nervous breakdown” is not a medical term or technical mental health disorder. Instead, it’s a term sometimes used to describe a mental health crisis.
Though, because it has a negative connotation and is not an official term, it’s unlikely that a mental health professional will use the term.
Simply put, having a mental breakdown means that you are dealing with emotionally stressful events and having difficulty coping in a way that is affecting your everyday life.
There are many things that can lead to a nervous breakdown. And because everyone handles stress differently, a stressful situation that may cause a mental health issue for one person, may not for another.
Examples of things that could trigger an emotional breakdown include:
Lack of quality sleep
Intense stress from work or elsewhere
Traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one or a job loss — these things could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder
Family or relationship problems
Chronic medical issues
These aren’t the only things that can cause mental distress that leads to an emotional breakdown.
You should also know that you may be more sensitive to extreme stress if you have a personal or family history of anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder.
If you have an underlying condition like a medical diagnosis or existing psychiatric disorder (for example, bipolar disorder, acute stress disorder, depressive disorder or another mood disorder), you may also be more prone to the kind of overwhelming stress that leads to a nervous breakdown.
If you’re on the verge of an emotional breakdown, it’s helpful to know the signs so that you can seek out a treatment plan as soon as possible.
Signs of a mental health breakdown include:
Weight loss or gain
Severe stress or persistent stress that leads to mood changes like irritability, anger or anxiety symptoms
Sleeping less than usual or more
Performing poorly at work or school
Withdrawing from things you once enjoyed
These signs can pop up slowly over time or come on quickly.
You may also notice physical symptoms, such as nausea or an upset stomach, chest pains, dizziness, trembling and more. Common psychological symptoms include feeling very sad, having trouble concentrating, nightmares and more.
If you’re in the midst of a mental health crisis and find daily activities to be difficult to accomplish, you will want to rectify that as soon as possible.
Finding a treatment plan will help you better manage symptoms of stress, get on with daily tasks, enjoy social situations and more.
Deep breathing exercises can help for some people. The idea here is to take a deep breath in, filling up your diaphragm. Hold it for three seconds and exhale slowly through pursed lips.
Repeat this a number of times until you feel better. This is known as diaphragmatic breathing and research suggests it can reduce stress in the moment.
But breathing may not work for everyone. If you are in a mental health crisis, you may need more dedicated help. Here are some things to consider.
Therapy or online therapy is one of the main ways to address psychological stress — specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to help. CBT can help you deal with your stress in a healthy way so that it doesn’t affect your day-to-day.
When you engage in CBT, you will work with a mental health provider to look at how this stress makes you feel, identify patterns that may not serve you and come up with ways to change that behavior.
Medication is another way that significant stress can be treated. If your nervous breakdown is causing a lot of anxiety, a prescription for anti-anxiety medication may help. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often used to manage anxiety symptoms.
SSRIs are also used to treat depression.So, if you’re having a mental health issue connected to depression, a healthcare provider may also suggest this type of medication.
Examples of SSRIs that are often prescribed include citalopram, fluoxetine, escitalopram, sertraline and paroxetine.
The term “nervous breakdown” is not a formal diagnosis, nor is it a medical term.
In fact, some people may even find it offensive or like it doesn’t accurately describe what’s actually going on.
What it refers to is a mental health crisis, which is often caused by major life changes or very high stress levels.
There’s not one universal warning sign of a nervous breakdown. Instead, there can be a variety of symptoms and each individual may show different signs. Some common, intense symptoms include not sleeping well, mood changes, anxiety or depression and more.
If you are worried you are having an emotional crisis, it’s best to schedule an assessment with a mental health provider. They will be able to assess what is going on and give you treatment options.