Nervous Breakdown Signs, Treatment, And Support

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

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 or 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.

Getty/PeopleImages
Learn how to recognize a nervous breakdown

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. 

A nervous breakdown may be viewed as a mental health condition that seems to begin suddenly, although the challenges 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 normal daily functions and important relationships. 

Common symptoms to look for

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
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of overwhelm
  • Trouble carrying on with daily activities
  • Missed appointments and work
  • Trouble concentrating, making decisions, and completing routine tasks
  • Isolation from others
  • Financial problems
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Sleep problems
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Unexplained pain
  • A tendency to get sick frequently
  • Racing thoughts
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • 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:

Getty

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 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

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. 

Paranoia

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. 

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. 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

Too much 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 major life events, such as experiencing a sudden tragedy, 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.

Treatment options for this and other mental health conditions

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.

Inpatient treatment

If you’re having psychotic symptoms, or if your mental illness symptoms involve self-harm, endanger your life*, or endanger the lives of others, it is usually recommended to go to an ER or inpatient mental care unit immediately. In an inpatient psychiatric hospital, a licensed healthcare provider is typically always there, day and night, to ensure you’re safe.

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. 

Medication

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.

iStock/fizkes
Learn how to recognize a nervous breakdown

Individual therapy for a mental health crisis

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

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 in person or via video call, you can rest assured you’ll receive quality treatment. 

Therapy for the traumatic stress associated with mental health crises 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

Group therapy

Many people who have breakdowns go to group therapy or support groups, sometimes in the hospital and sometimes in an outpatient setting. 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.

Takeaway

Nervous breakdowns can happen when individuals are faced with a high degree of stress and a lack of coping skills to manage that stress. They can involve a wide variety of symptoms and often affect individuals’ physical and mental health. In some cases, a psychological break from reality can occur, which can indicate the need for immediate treatment. Treatment options for nervous breakdowns can include a combination of individual and group therapy, inpatient treatment, medication, and stress management classes. It can be simple to begin individual therapy from home by connecting with a licensed therapist through an online therapy platform. Take the first step toward getting support with emotional stress from a nervous breakdown and reach out to BetterHelp today.
Regulate anxiety in a compassionate environment
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started