What Does It Feel Like To Have A Nervous Breakdown?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

A nervous breakdown, to say the least, is probably not something that anyone wants to go through. While it’s not a medical term or a formal diagnosis, the term “nervous breakdown” is widely used to describe a period of extreme overwhelm that can impact a person’s functioning and overall mental health. Even though it doesn’t have an official diagnostic meaning, it is a very serious concern. 

A nervous breakdown is like a full system shutdown in many ways.

Characterized largely by symptoms affiliated with anxiety disorders and depression, a nervous breakdown often occurs when it all feels like too much.

So, what are the signs of a nervous breakdown? What are the causes, and what can you do if it happens to you?

What causes a nervous breakdown?

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Are you feeling symptoms of a nervous breakdown?

Several things can contribute to a nervous breakdown, and it’s often a combination of factors at play. Potential causes include:

Traumatic event

A stressful or traumatic event could be the cause of a breakdown. Examples of traumatic events may include but aren’t limited to natural disasters, the loss of a loved one, abuse*, losing one’s home, and physical health complications or injuries. Experiencing overwhelming stress and shock associated with trauma can cause a breakdown-like mental health crisis.

Prolonged stress

A nervous breakdown will not typically occur after one isolated stressful day. However, if life’s stresses—work stress, financial stress, familial stress, or stress from another source—pile on, it can lead to a nervous breakdown.

*Please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) if you or someone you know is facing abuse.

Someone may be at higher risk of a nervous breakdown if they live with mental health conditions. Many mental health conditions can exacerbate the symptoms of a nervous or mental breakdown, such as depression or anxiety disorders. Life changes, such as a divorce, may also be a cause or contributing factor. Feeling alone or being unable to rest or take time off during stressful situations in daily life can make it more likely that a person will reach this point, as both are affiliated with higher stress levels.

The symptoms of a nervous breakdown vary, so it can be important to be aware of the several signs that you could be having a breakdown. Understanding the symptoms of a mental breakdown can help you understand what nervous breakdowns might feel like and identify if you or someone you love may need support. These mental breakdown symptoms should not be ignored, and the mind and body should get the rest they require when these symptoms start to emerge.

The symptoms of a nervous breakdown

It can be important to address the signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown – or what could be the start of one – as soon as you can. Here are some potential signs of a nervous breakdown:

Trouble sleeping

Trouble sleeping can take a number of different forms. This might mean poor sleep quality, trouble falling asleep, sleeping too little, or sleeping too much. On its own, this is not necessarily indicative of a nervous breakdown. Trouble sleeping is a possible symptom of a number of different mental and physical problems. However, if it’s paired with other symptoms, this could be the case, and regardless, it is likely time to seek professional help, especially if the problem is ongoing.

Irritability

When we are at our breaking point, it can be common to feel irritable or agitated. A person undergoing a mental breakdown may feel irritable or get irritated more easily. Mood changes, whether in the form of mood swings (for example, sadness to agitation) or a low or depressed mood, which may pair with symptoms such as loss of interest in activities, are also very common.

Excessive worry

Excessive worry is a common symptom of various underlying mental health conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, acute stress disorder, or other mental health issues, and it may also occur during a nervous breakdown. You might experience symptoms such as heart palpitations, racing thoughts, fearful thoughts, or even panic attacks.

Physical symptoms

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The extreme stress or shock to the mind affiliated with a nervous breakdown can come with not only intense mental distress and anxiety symptoms but also several physical symptoms. These may include but are not limited to body aches, fatigue, GI distress, high blood pressure, tense muscles, headaches, and other issues that can affect body function.

Difficulty with self-care

Someone experiencing a nervous breakdown might start to have trouble with self-care and may have poor hygiene. For example, someone might have trouble bathing, brushing their teeth, or taking care of their hair. They may also experience difficulty keeping up with their obligations, such as showing up to appointments or remembering what they have to do at work or in other aspects of their day-to-day life.

Becoming socially distant

You or someone you know who is facing a nervous breakdown may become distant from the people in their lives. Sometimes, this can pair with irritability. A person might push others away and may seem unlike themselves. It could also be that someone stops replying to text messages, no longer shows up to hangouts or events, or starts losing interest in things they used to enjoy.

What if you’re the one who needs help?

If you’re the one who is worried about potentially having a nervous breakdown, recognizing the symptoms is a useful thing. Recognizing the common signs that something might be off can be the first step toward getting the help you need. Whether the concern is a mental health condition, everyday life stress, or something else, you must get the help you need and take steps toward self-care—even if this just means meditating and deep breathing for five minutes.

It’s also vital to note that you do not have to reach the point of a mental health crisis to ask for help. A nervous breakdown can be a sign of serious mental health conditions or medical conditions, and it can lead to serious mental and physical distress or even self-harm.** When it comes to preventing a nervous breakdown, try some of the following steps:

  • Slow down. Permit yourself to take a break. Lighten your load in any way that you can.
  • Practice self-care. Taking care of yourself when you’re experiencing mental distress can be crucial. Lifestyle modifications can include avoiding alcohol and recreational drugs, getting plenty of sleep, and practicing breathing exercises.
  • Reach out. Tell someone what you’re going through, whether that’s a loved one, a mental healthcare provider, or a support group.

**If you or someone you know is having thoughts of self-harm, or you are looking for immediate support for another mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “HOME” to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.

If you’re experiencing a mental breakdown or think that you might be, reach out to a mental healthcare provider, your primary care physician, or someone else in the medical community. Wellness professionals can give you a physical exam and rule out certain underlying conditions. They may be able to refer you to a mental healthcare professional, write a note for your workplace, or provide information about other treatment options if applicable. In some cases, a healthcare provider may be able to prescribe medication for your symptoms. Make sure that you consult with your doctor or another healthcare professional before considering any medication options.

Seeking therapy

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Are you feeling symptoms of a nervous breakdown?

Seeking talk therapy can help you address a nervous breakdown, recover from a mental health crisis, or prevent future occurrences. In therapy, you can discover coping skills and ways to care for your mental health as a unique individual. Your provider should take your unique circumstances into mind.

If there is an underlying cause, such as trauma-related stress or other mental health conditions, a therapist or counselor can help you address these concerns. If you’re seeking care, you can look for a therapist who practices near you or sign up for a reputable online talk therapy platform like BetterHelp. Peer-reviewed studies have shown that online therapy is useful for managing the symptoms of a variety of mental health concerns, including those typically associated with nervous breakdowns.

The BetterHelp platform makes it fast and easy to start working with a counselor or therapist. To get started, all you have to do is take a quick questionnaire, and you’ll get paired with a licensed provider. If the first therapist or counselor you see isn’t a good match, BetterHelp makes switching seamless. BetterHelp makes it easy for you to manage settings and customize your experience when it comes to the way you participate in therapy.

Takeaway

A Nervous breakdown isn’t a technical mental health term, but it could be a sign of other underlying mental health conditions. Seeking help in these circumstances will be key.

Whether you want to talk about personal mental health, relationships, or something else, mental health professionals can help, so don’t hesitate to reach out to a provider in your area or take the first steps towards seeing an online therapist today.

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