The term “nervous breakdown” is commonly used to refer to a large-scale mental event, although it’s not generally considered to be a clinical diagnosis. Nervous breakdowns often happen in response to long-term stress or a specific traumatic event. They may involve symptoms related to depression and anxiety, as well as physical symptoms like headaches, gastrointestinal issues, dizziness, and fatigue. Sometimes, a person experiencing a nervous breakdown may also experience a break from reality, potentially involving feelings of detachment, delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. Treatment options typically include inpatient treatment, individual therapy, group therapy, medication, and stress management classes. If individual therapy is part of your treatment plan, you can receive professional help from the comfort of your home through online therapy.
What Is A Nervous Breakdown?
While the term “nervous breakdown” isn’t a clinical diagnosis in the DSM-5, it can be a common term used to describe the intensity of a large-scale emotional and mental event, often involving overwhelming and even debilitating feelings of stress and anxiety.
A nervous breakdown is usually 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 substances can also play a role in what may be called nervous breakdown episodes. To a psychiatrist or psychologist, a nervous breakdown is frequently 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 may be viewed as a mental health condition that seems to begin suddenly, although the issues that contribute to it could be ongoing for years. It can be a mental health crisis that usually 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 due to this mental health condition.
Common Signs Of A Nervous Breakdown
Because a nervous breakdown may be related to many different mental conditions, there can be a long list of potential symptoms associated with it:
- Depressed mood
- 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
- Rapid heart rate
- Excessive crying
Psychological Break From Reality
Sometimes, people who have a nervous breakdown may experience a break from reality. They may have psychotic symptoms, which generally means that their perceptions, thought processes, and reactions are out of touch with what is real. Having these symptoms may mean that you are living with 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 the psychosis often fades after the breakdown is over. There are some relatively common signs that can indicate when someone has lost touch with reality, potentially including but not limited to the following:
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.
Hallucinating usually 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 may see or hear things that are bizarre to them.
Delusions are typically defined as false beliefs that you hold firmly despite evidence to the contrary. People with mental illnesses can have any of a variety of types of delusions, potentially including the belief that someone famous is in love with them, having 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 is usually 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 a nervous breakdown is normally 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 generally need to uncover the cause of the mental distress. The two leading causes of a nervous breakdown are typically related to coping with extreme stress and having an underlying mental disorder.
Stress And Inability To Cope
Stress can profoundly affect your body and mind. Sometimes, breakdowns can 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 may give way to a more intense reaction that could result 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 likely signals 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 usually 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.
*If you or a loved one is witnessing or experiencing any form of abuse, please know that help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline anytime at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Nervous Breakdown Treatment Options
Getting immediate help can be essential if you think you’re having a nervous breakdown. Whether you need intense treatment or weekly one-on-one therapy, it can be vital to seek professional help from a qualified healthcare provider and get started with treatment as soon as possible. There may be several different types of treatment available.
After diagnosis, you may need to consider medications, at least for a while. You may also 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 normally 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 any underlying physical causes of the nervous breakdown. Generally, doctors then develop a treatment plan and discuss it with the patient.
*If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, you can call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline anytime, 24/7, at 988.
The types of medication your psychiatrist might prescribe usually depend on the breakdown symptoms you’re having. 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. Never start or stop any form of medication unless under the guidance of a licensed medical professional.
You can start by talking to a therapist, who can refer you elsewhere if you need more intensive mental health interventions. Therapy can take place in a clinic or therapist’s office, or you can receive professional treatment virtually via an online platform. After experiencing the stressful symptoms often associated with a nervous breakdown, you may feel more comfortable attending therapy sessions from the comfort of your home. You may also appreciate how quickly an online therapy platform can match you with a licensed therapist who can meet your specific needs.
As a strong body of research has demonstrated, there is generally no difference between the efficacy of traditional in-office therapy and online therapy. Whether you choose to see a therapist face-to-face or via video call, you can rest assured you’ll receive quality treatment.
Therapy for the traumatic stress associated with breakdowns can involve many different approaches and techniques, usually including talk therapy. Some of the main goals of therapy 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
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 often have several benefits. Group therapy 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 cope with criticism from others
Stress Management Classes
Because breakdowns are often related to stress, stress management classes can be beneficial for many people. They can prepare you to get back to your everyday life with the tools to effectively cope with any stress that may emerge later. These classes can help you learn how to reduce demands on your time, find resources for managing stressors, and develop coping skills that can reduce overwhelming stress to manageable levels.
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