The Physical Symptoms Of A Nervous Breakdown

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated June 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Although the term “nervous breakdown” was once commonly used to describe legitimate mental illness symptoms, it has lost its popularity as a medical term among clinicians. Nevertheless, it is a valuable concept for patients and mental health professionals alike. It provides a bridge to discuss the possible presence of chronic medical illness, severe stress levels, and the need for a mental health practitioner. While “nervous breakdown” is not a clinical diagnosis, it is an illustrative term to have available, as it can describe intense mental breakdown symptoms without clinical jargon.

You can get help for a nervous breakdown

Signs of a nervous breakdown

The signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown vary from person to person and generally rely significantly upon the mental health of the individual experiencing the breakdown. The symptoms of a nervous breakdown will often mimic whatever mental illness is at play or whatever is causing disruption to mental health; consequently, no two 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 or 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 nervous breakdown symptoms

The most prominent physical indications of an acute breakdown are symptoms like a rise in blood pressure or heart rate and, with that, dizziness or disassociation, increased sweating, shaking, and nausea. These acute symptoms often directly precede an emotional release of some kind, such as shouting, crying, or begging for help or a rescuer. Following the height of a breakdown, an individual might experience disruptions in body function that affect such things as sleep patterns, appetite control, and even immune system responses. In extreme cases, these disruptions can progress into physical health conditions.

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 marked fluctuations in weight and may begin to see signs of inflammation, such as increased exhaustion and frequent illness.


Mental/emotional indications of a breakdown

A nervous breakdown’s acute mental and emotional symptoms are often attributed to mental illness but are not necessarily solid indicators of a disorder. These include feelings of rage, terror, and despair.

An acute nervous breakdown might also elicit the sense of being out of control. If anger is the dominant emotion, it may seem like nothing else exists apart from anger. If terror is the dominant emotion, it may seem as though everything is a threat. Every word spoken can seem like a shaming and cruel remark, and every sound can elicit fear. If sadness is the dominant emotion, despair might reign, and it may seem as though nothing will ever be good or safe again.

Conversely, chronic mental and emotional indications of a breakdown are less severe but may be more pervasive. Anger, for instance, might not be in a constant heightened state, but someone experiencing a long-term breakdown might continuously be irritable, frustrated, and perpetually on the verge of losing their temper.

Those experiencing overwhelming stress or anxiety might have a prolonged fight-or-flight response and frequently be afraid, paranoid, or worried, which could lead to racing thoughts, withdrawal from friends and loved ones, and emotional shutdown. Finally, chronic despair often looks like a decreased interest in things once valued or loved, reduced interest in favorite activities, and a decreased interest in spending time with others. Peer-reviewed studies support the idea that nervous breakdowns can present differently depending on the other types of disorders present.

A loss of perspective often punctuates both long-term and short-term nervous breakdowns. A loss of perspective in a short-term breakdown can result in emotions taking over, as it removes the possibility of consequences. A loss of perspective can worsen 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 instead, it is usually a stress response produced to influence healing.

iStock/Kateryna Onyshchuk
You can get help for a nervous breakdown

Treatment for a mental health crisis

The best step to take after having a nervous breakdown is to find 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. 

Often, people who have experienced nervous breakdowns are reluctant to leave the house because they are afraid of losing control in a public place. This can raise a barrier to the therapy they desperately need. The rise of online therapy has provided a useful solution to such barriers. When you use a platform like BetterHelp, you can reach out to a mental health professional anytime from your home or anywhere else that seems safe. 

A great advantage of this form of therapy is that you don’t have to compromise convenience for effectiveness. In multiple studies done in recent years, researchers have confirmed that online therapeutic interventions can be just as effective as their in-person counterparts for a variety of patients and conditions.

Although nervous breakdowns have a negative reputation, they can be essential turning points that set you on the path to improving your mental health and stress management skills. 

Whether you are experiencing your first nervous breakdown or you have had untreated bouts of intense stress or mental illness followed by a breakdown in the past, you can take the time following a mental breakdown to speak with an online therapist, trusted adviser, 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.

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