What Does A Nervous Breakdown Feel Like? Physical And Emotional Indications Of Anxiety

Updated February 01, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers

The term “nervous breakdown” has numerous meanings. Popular culture has co-opted the term often, to indicate that something has gone awry, or that someone is going through a difficult time. “Nervous breakdown” can also be used as a tongue-in-cheek way to describe a young adult’s desire to change their lives drastically, or to express a toddler in the midst of a tantrum. An actual nervous breakdown, however, is less fodder for entertainment and amusement, and more a legitimate indication that something has reached its breaking point. So, what exactly is a nervous breakdown?

Nervous Breakdowns: The Basics

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Although the term was once in vogue as a means of describing legitimate mental illness symptoms, it has lost its popularity among clinicians. Nevertheless, it is a valuable turn of phrase for patients and mental health professionals alike, as it provides a bridge with which to discuss the possible presence of mental illness or the need for a mental health practitioner. Rather than being an indication of a midlife crisis, tantrum, or lifestyle overhaul, though, a nervous breakdown is typically a symptom of emotional instability, extremely high anxiety, panic disorder, depressive disorders, or another form of mental illness. While it is not a clinical diagnosis, it is a crucial term to have available, as it can help describe intense symptoms without the clinical jargon to define them.

Typically, then, a nervous breakdown is any large-scale emotional or mental event wherein someone feels out of control or frightened by their intensity. Nervous breakdowns can involve feelings of fury, fear, or despair, or may contain some degree of each of these feelings. Nervous breakdowns rise from within and often result in some form of “explosion,” such as a series of screams, a panic attack, or an outburst of sobs. There are two types of nervous breakdowns: long-term (chronic) breakdowns and short-term (acute) breakdowns. Each of these types presents their challenges and difficulties, and both can usually benefit from some form of intervention.

Who Can Have A Nervous Breakdown?

The answer to this is nuanced; while anyone is capable of reaching the point of a nervous breakdown, there are often warning signs and indications that something is amiss first. Consequently, mental breakdowns may be more common among individuals who struggle with a mood or stress disorder, such as Major Depressive Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The reason for this is simple: because a nervous breakdown is often a culmination of high levels of anxiety and depression, there are usually indications of ongoing anxiety and depression present. A diagnosis of either is not a requirement of a nervous breakdown, though, as it is possible to live without a diagnosis, and not recognize that something is wrong until symptoms have reached their peak and culminated in a nervous breakdown.

Men and women are both equally capable of experiencing nervous breakdowns, and high-stress levels among children and teenagers make room for nervous breakdowns among younger age groups, as well. Far from targeting a narrow group of people, nervous breakdowns are dramatic overstimulation of an individual’s mental, emotional, or physical abilities-overstimulation that can occur among people of all ages, backgrounds, and histories. While mental illness is more commonly associated with having a nervous breakdown, day-to-day stressors, significant life events, and worldwide changes can all herald the onset of a nervous breakdown.

Signs And Symptoms Of A Nervous Breakdown

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The signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown will vary from person to person and will rely significantly upon the mental health of the individual experiencing the breakdown. Someone who has long fought a battle with uncontrolled anger, for instance, will likely experience a nervous breakdown in the form of losing their temper, shouting, throwing things, and similarly angry behavior. An individual who has long struggled with anxiety might experience a breakdown as a type of panic attack, wherein they feel as though they are in grave danger. Still, others who are prone more to despair will likely experience a nervous breakdown as a type of overwhelming sadness, punctuated by a seeming inability to stop crying or calm down. The symptoms of a nervous breakdown, then, will most closely mimic whatever mental illness is at play, or whatever is causing disruption to mental health; consequently, no two mental breakdowns are the same.

There are also chronic and acute symptoms of a nervous breakdown. A chronic state might last for days or weeks, and could be indicated by repeatedly calling out of work, not going to school, and engaging in unhealthy eating and sleeping habits. An acute mental breakdown is more likely to be accompanied by a rush of emotions, physical symptoms, and feelings of shame or regret.

Physical Indications Of A Breakdown

The most prominent physical indication of an acute breakdown is a rise in blood pressure or heart rate. How these manifest emotionally differs, but physically, a rise in blood pressure is often indicated by feelings of dizziness or disassociation, increased sweating, and shaking. It may also be accompanied by nausea. These acute symptoms often directly precede an emotional release of some kind, such as shouting, crying, or begging for help or a rescuer.

Physical symptoms of a chronic or ongoing breakdown are similar but less intense. Someone experiencing a chronic breakdown might have difficulty sleeping, may experience muscle tension or general pain in the body, and might have increased or decreased appetite. These individuals might see a marked increase or decrease in weight and may begin to see signs of inflammation, such as increased exhaustion and frequent illness.

Mental/Emotional Indications Of A Breakdown         

Acute mental and emotional symptoms of a nervous breakdown are often attributed to mental illness but are not necessarily solid indicators of a disorder. These include feelings of rage, terror, and despair. Emotionally, an acute nervous breakdown might also elicit feelings of being out of control. If anger is the dominant emotion, it may feel as though nothing else exists, apart from anger. If terror is the dominant emotion, it may feel as though everything is a threat-every word spoken can feel like a shaming, cruel remark, every sound can elicit fear. If sadness is the dominant emotion, hopelessness and despair might reign, and it may feel as though nothing will ever be good or safe again.

Conversely, chronic mental and emotional indications of a breakdown are less severe but maybe more pervasive. Anger, for instance, might not live in a constant heightened state, but someone experiencing a long-term breakdown might continuously feel irritable, frustrated, and perpetually on the verge of losing their tempter. Those with anxiety might have a prolonged fight or flight response and feel frequently afraid, paranoid, or worried-which could lead to racing thoughts, withdrawal from friends and loved ones, and emotional shutting down. Finally, chronic despair often looks like a decreased interest in things once valued or loved, reduced interest in favored activities, and a decreased interest in spending time with others.

A loss of perspective often punctuates both long-term and short-term nervous breakdowns. A loss of perspective in a short-term breakdown can aid in emotions taking over, as it removes the possibility of consequences. A loss of perspective can aid long-term breakdowns because it removes the possibility of change and improvement. A nervous breakdown is not a symptom of willful or intentional damage of interest or ability but is usually a stress response crafted to influence healing.

What Next? Moving Forward After A Nervous Breakdown

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Although nervous breakdowns have a negative reputation, they can be essential turning points in mental illness and set you on the path to improving your mental health. Ultimately, a nervous breakdown is your body and mind’s attempt to get your attention, and unmistakably demonstrate that something has gone wrong, whether that is an indication that there is a biological change at play, or it is an indication that you have taken on far too much and are in need of some change. Often the best step to take after having a nervous breakdown is finding a mental health professional who can help determine what led you to that space and assist you in navigating the healing process. In some cases, this might mean treating mental illness, and in others, it may mean staging some lifestyle interventions, such as cutting back on commitments or simplifying financial expenditures.

Having a nervous breakdown can be frightening. It can feel as though you have a heart attack, are losing control of your faculties, or are irrevocably changed. Fortunately, though, a nervous breakdown is typically a “reset” action designed by the body to indicate that something is amiss, and listening to this response as a warning sign can tremendously lessen the likelihood of experiencing such a response again. Whether you are experiencing your first nervous breakdown, or you have had untreated bouts of mental illness followed by a breakdown in the past, you can take the time following a mental breakdown to speak with a therapist, trusted advisor, or friend, and determine what changes must be enlisted for your life, and what treatment may be necessary to create a healthy environment, both internally and externally.


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