What Are The Symptoms Of A Mental Breakdown?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated March 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

A mental breakdown, also called a nervous breakdown, is a type of intense mental health crisis, though it isn’t a medical diagnosis. You may be experiencing a tremendous amount of stress, depression, or anxiety you can’t cope with properly, which prevents you from functioning in your daily life. Mental breakdowns typically feel like being mentally, emotionally, and physically overwhelmed by the stress in your life. 

You can experience a mental breakdown even if there are no specific stressors in your life at the moment. Over time, pressure accumulates on your nervous system and can eventually lead to you losing the ability to function as you should, causing a mental breakdown. While the process leading to a mental breakdown can take a long time, the onset often feels sudden when circumstances reach the breaking point. 

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What is a mental breakdown?

While the term nervous or mental breakdown is often used to describe the reaction to an intense emotional crisis, it doesn’t indicate a specific mental health condition or treatment. There could be an underlying mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, that requires attention.

During a mental health crisis, you may feel out of control, afraid, anxious, worried, nervous, or depressed. These emotions can lead to feeling stuck, incapacitated, and overwhelmed, leaving you unable to cope and function in your daily life. 

Factors that can contribute to a mental breakdown

A mental breakdown is an extreme reaction to stress, and it can be influenced by other factors in your life. Some people have a family or personal history of anxiety disorders and may be more prone to intense reactions to stress. Disease and other medical conditions can affect physical ability, which can prompt a severe emotional response. A previous mental health condition, such as adjustment disorder, depression, or anxiety, can also impact the frequency and intensity of a mental breakdown. 

What causes a mental breakdown?

There is no single cause for a mental breakdown. The point at which an individual’s response to stress stops functioning varies with each person. However, it is not an indication of weakness. Sometimes, the human nervous system needs to release the built-up pressure, forcing you to stop and address the issue. 

Everyone experiences stress differently, and it can cause a widely varied response from one person to another. Working with a therapist can help you determine your mental stress triggers, how to recognize future breakdowns, and how to avoid them taking full effect. 

Common mental stressors include:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Underlying mental health conditions
  • Toxic work environment
  • Medical trauma and rapidly changing circumstances
  • Financial stress
  • Breakup or divorce
  • Burnout
  • Family-related stress
  • Lack of emotional support
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Mental breakdown signs and symptoms

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a mental breakdown can make it easier to identify when it’s time to seek help. It can be challenging to make decisions, even for self-care, during a mental breakdown. The earlier you seek help, the more effective your efforts will likely be. 

You may be heading toward a mental breakdown or another mental health condition if you find yourself losing interest in hobbies and other activities, changing your eating habits, withdrawing from others, isolating yourself, and finding it challenging to cope well with changes. Untreated stress can accumulate over time and spill over into other parts of your life. 

Symptoms of a mental breakdown can include:

  • Trouble with healthy sleep, eating, and hygiene patterns
  • Calling in sick to work for days at a time
  • Avoiding social engagements and missing appointments
  • Inability to form or maintain a positive outlook
  • Harmful, intrusive thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • Physical ailments like insomnia, exhaustion, muscle pain, stomach problems, etc. 
  • Feelings of isolation, disconnection, being overwhelmed or out of control, paranoia, fear, etc.
  • Fluctuating moods with emotional outbursts
  • Sleeping too much, too little, or having nightmares

Coping with a mental breakdown

The coping strategies that will work best for you are as individual as you are. However, if you approach your mental breakdown recovery with self-compassion, you may be able to mitigate some potential damage to your mental and emotional health. Coping with a mental breakdown can be challenging, but a qualified therapist can guide and support you through the process. 

Identify and manage stressors

The root cause of a mental breakdown is often an overwhelming amount of stress. Identify the factors contributing to your stress and work to establish coping skills and healthy boundaries to prevent the same intense reaction to the stressor in the future. Stressors can be unavoidable, and stress management should help you find a balance so you can react appropriately to circumstances beyond your control.

Ensure your basic needs are met

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a person’s basic needs must be met before they have the capacity to enjoy hobbies or devote energy to their emotional needs. When it feels like you can’t manage anything, reach out to friends and family for support to ensure your basic needs are met. If you need additional help, look into organizations in your community for assistance with food, shelter, clothing, or other necessities. 

When should you seek help for a mental breakdown?

“Mental health conditions cannot be overcome through willpower and are not related to a person’s character or intelligence, but they are treatable. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan,” said the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

If you recognize that you’re so overwhelmed that you can’t function in your everyday life as you usually do, it may be time to reach out for professional help. One of the best ways to avoid future mental breakdowns is to maintain your mental health even after you recover from the breakdown. Recognizing the steps early and seeking treatment can often help you avoid a mental breakdown.

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Emergency resources if you are experiencing a mental breakdown

While a mental breakdown is uncommon for you on an individual level, it is not unusual in general, and help is available. Reach out and speak with mental health experts who can help you through this crisis. 

  • Visit the emergency room at your local hospital for an immediate crisis.
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741.
  • If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, and help is available 24/7. 
  • Veterans Crisis Line: Call 1-800-273-8255 (and press 1) or text 838255. For support for the deaf and hard of hearing community, please use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255.

Mental breakdown treatment options

There are several ways to approach mental breakdown treatment options. Many symptoms typical for mental or nervous breakdowns align with anxiety disorders, but contributing factors will influence your treatment plan. A therapist can help you decide the best fit for your situation. 

Recent research shows that dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) may be an effective way to counter overwhelming feelings. DBT involves identifying emotions and how they make you act, then acting opposite to your typical behavior. For example, if you typically procrastinate to avoid completing a task you feel anxious over, tackle it directly and remove the potential stressor. 

Ways to treat anxiety

Here are some ways to treat anxiety.

  • Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can help you learn coping strategies to manage ongoing anxiety and support you through any mental health concerns. 
  • Medication for anxiety can help mitigate some symptoms that may contribute to a mental breakdown if you have an underlying condition. Speak to your doctor about your concerns to see if anxiety medication fits your situation. 
  • Many people find comfort in mindfulness and meditation. Developing a mindful, balanced approach to life can lower anxiety and help develop your emotional awareness. 

How therapy can help you through a mental breakdown

A licensed therapist is trained to help you through a mental breakdown. Trust the experts to guide and support you as you identify and work through your emotions. Therapy can teach you coping skills and help you shape a positive perspective for the future. 

Many people prefer online therapy over in-person sessions. Speaking to a professional from the comfortable, familiar settings of home can make it easier to reach out for help. Virtual therapy providers like BetterHelp offer flexible appointments over the phone, via video call, or online chat to maximize user comfort and convenience. Online therapy also puts professional help at your fingertips anywhere you have an internet connection, bypassing potential months on a waiting list. 

Therapists treat various mental health conditions with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Recent studies show that online CBT can be as effective as in-person treatments and is frequently more cost-effective and accessible. Patients have reported discretion and convenience as factors to the desirability of online therapy. 

Takeaway

A mental breakdown is, by definition, a difficult time emotionally and often physically. A qualified therapist can help you identify the stressors causing your mental breakdown and develop a treatment to guide you while building long-term strategies to manage your stress in the future.

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