Nervous Breakdown Symptoms, Treatment, And Support

Updated March 9, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While the term “nervous breakdown” isn’t a clinical diagnosis in the DSM-5, it is a common term used to describe the intensity of a large-scale emotional and mental event involving overwhelming and often debilitating feelings of stress and anxiety. 

A nervous breakdown is often a reaction to a stressful or traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job, but it can also be triggered by constant, overwhelming long-term stress. 

Recreational drugs can also play a role in what we call nervous breakdown episodes. To a psychiatrist or psychologist, a nervous breakdown is often a sign of an underlying mental illness. It could be the first sign of anxiety, a mood disorder, an addiction, or an unresolved traumatic experience.

A nervous breakdown is a mental health condition that seems to begin suddenly, although the issues that contribute to it could be ongoing for years. It is a mental health crisis that comes with extreme feelings of distress and a sense of being overwhelmed by daily life, normal responsibilities, and important relationships. A person’s physical health can also decline because of these mental health conditions. 

Learn How To Recognize A Nervous Breakdown

Common Signs Of A Nervous Breakdown

Because a nervous breakdown may be related to many different mental conditions, it there is a long list of symptoms associated with it:

  • Depressed mood

  • Anxiety

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Being unable to carry on daily activities

  • Missing appointments and work

  • Trouble concentrating, making decisions, and completing tasks

  • Isolating from others

  • Extreme mood swings

  • Poor hygiene

  • Sleep problems

  • Changes in appetite or weight

  • Fatigue or lethargy

  • Gastrointestinal problems

  • Unexplained pain

  • Getting sick frequently

  • Racing thoughts

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Dizziness

  • Excessive crying

Psychological Break From Reality

Sometimes people who have a nervous breakdown experience a break from reality. They have psychotic symptoms, which means that their perceptions, thought processes, and reactions are out of touch with what is real. Having these symptoms may mean that you have a severe mental illness that is suddenly emerging through urgent symptoms. 

However, many people have these mental breakdown symptoms only for a brief time, and then the psychosis fades after the breakdown is over. There are some relatively common signs that indicate when someone has lost touch with reality, including but not limited to:

  • Feelings Of Detachment

If you have feelings of detachment, you might imagine that you aren’t really yourself or aren’t involved with what’s going on around you. The connections you usually have with other people can seem distant during a breakdown.

  • Hallucinations

Hallucinating means seeing or hearing things that aren’t there. Sometimes, people having a breakdown may experience sights and sounds that are common in the real world but are out of place or different in some way. Other times, people see or hear things that are bizarre to them.

  • Delusions

Delusions are false beliefs that you hold too firmly despite evidence to the contrary. People with mental illness can have any of a variety of types of delusions, including the belief that someone famous is in love with them, an overinflated self-image, and believing that they have superhuman powers, knowledge, or talents. Some delusions may also make an individual think that they are a historical or current famous person or religious icon.

  • Paranoia

Paranoia is a type of delusion in which you have false beliefs that someone is trying to hurt you in some way. You might think your romantic partner is cheating on you, for instance. Or you might believe the people at your job are plotting against you in evil ways. People with paranoid thoughts often organize these beliefs in a complicated, systematic way.

What Causes Nervous Breakdowns?

Because nervous breakdown is an acute mental illness that needs prompt attention, the clinical professionals who provide treatment for you might need to take care of your immediate needs for safety right away. But very soon after treatment begins, they’ll need to discover the cause of the mental distress. The two leading causes of a nervous breakdown are related to coping with extreme stress and having an underlying mental disorder.

Learn How To Recognize A Nervous Breakdown

Stress And Inability To Cope

Stress can profoundly affect your body and mind. Sometimes, breakdowns happen after years of living in an extremely stressful situation. Other times, you might be facing an overwhelming crisis that occurs suddenly. In either case, your body’s normal stress reaction gives way to a more intense reaction that results in a breakdown of clear thinking, emotional control, and at times a physical health problem and medical diagnosis.

Nervous Breakdowns And Anxiety Disorders

Often, breakdowns are related to anxiety disorders. If this is the case, you might have noticed anxious feelings and physical anxiety symptoms for some time before the breakdown happens. Even though you might not have previously considered treatment, the breakdown might signal that you shouldn’t delay psychological treatment anymore.

Sometimes, the major stressor might be a traumatic event, and the underlying disorder might be post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Acute PTSD symptoms can happen after traumatic events, such as being in military combat, being assaulted, or living through a natural disaster

Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is caused by ongoing interpersonal abuse, such as domestic violence and captivity during war. Another anxiety disorder that might be at the root of a breakdown is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). If you have GAD, it might be hard for you to immediately find the source of your anxiety because the symptoms can often seem to come out of nowhere.

Nervous Breakdown Treatments

Getting help immediately is essential if you think you’re having a nervous breakdown. Whether you need intense treatment or weekly one-on-one counseling, it’s vital to seek professional help from a qualified healthcare provider and get started with treatment as soon as possible. There are several different types of treatment available.

Inpatient Treatment

If you’re having psychotic symptoms or your mental illness symptoms are endangering your life or the lives of others or involve self-harm, go to an ER or an inpatient mental care unit immediately. In an inpatient psychiatric hospital, a trained healthcare provider is always there, day and night, to be sure you’re safe.

After diagnosis, you might need to consider medications, at least for a while. Also, you might participate in counseling, group therapy, support groups, or stress management classes during the day. This may continue if you are in inpatient care and possibly if you are in outpatient care as well. 

The goal is to help you move beyond the mental breakdown and regain your mental health or even improve it beyond what it was before the breakdown. Inpatient care can also involve a physical exam to look for physical symptoms for any underlying cause of the nervous breakdown in body function, physical problems, or medical conditions. Doctors then develop a treatment plan accordingly and discuss it with the patient.


The types of medication your psychiatrist might prescribe depends on the breakdown symptoms you’re having. Also, if your doctor diagnoses you with an underlying mental illness, they might prescribe you medications designed to help with that disorder.

Sometimes you might need to take anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, or sleep medications. In addition, healthcare professionals treating these mental health issues often use deep breathing and other breathing exercises, mindfulness and meditation practices, and other holistic treatment options with their patients.


You can start by talking to a therapist, who can refer you elsewhere if you need more intensive mental health interventions. A counselor can help you in the hospital or during outpatient sessions. Therapy can take place in a clinic or counselor’s office, or you can get treatment on an online platform like BetterHelp

Therapy for the traumatic stress associated with breakdowns can involve many different approaches and techniques, including talk therapy. Some of the main goals of counseling may be to:

  • Express feelings

  • Understand yourself better

  • Learn to deal with stress more effectively.

  • Change thought patterns that increase stress.

  • Choose new behaviors that are conducive to better mental health.

  • Make practical plans for getting back to your usual life.

Group Therapy

Many people who have breakdowns go to group therapy or support groups, sometimes in the hospital and sometimes in an outpatient setting. Therapy sessions with other people have several benefits. It might give you opportunities to:

  • Practice communication skills

  • Express your feelings

  • Talk about and get insight into the breakdown and what preceded it.

  • Learn to deal with criticism from others

Stress Management Classes

Because breakdowns are related to stress, stress management classes can be beneficial for many people. They prepare you to get back to your everyday life with the tools to deal with any stress that emerges later. These classes can help you learn how to reduce demands on your time, find resources for managing stressors, and develop coping skills that reduce overwhelming stress to manageable levels.


Mental breakdowns can happen when individuals are faced with a high degree of stress and a lack of coping ability to manage that stress. If you’re worried that you might be having or about to have a breakdown, consider the symptoms to determine if they apply to you. 

If you decide it’s time to seek treatment, it’s essential to reach out in a timely manner to a mental health professional. Talking to an online counselor can be a simple, inexpensive way to get started on your healing process. Getting past the intense experience of a breakdown will likely take priority. Then, you can move forward to treat any mental health issues you may have and learn coping strategies for the future.

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