What Is A Nervous Breakdown? How To Know If Your Mental Health Is At Risk

We've all known someone on the verge of a 'complete mental breakdown', but what does that mean?

What Is A Nervous Breakdown? Signs & Symptoms Your Mental Health Is At Risk Getty

The term "nervous breakdown" is often used by people to describe an intense stressful situation in which they are temporarily unable to function or maintain daily activities, obligations, or other responsibilities normally.

People who feel they are experiencing symptoms of a mental breakdown are typically under an intense amount of emotional distress, have marked difficulty maintaining daily functioning, and generally feel overwhelmed.


What is a nervous breakdown?

It's worth noting that “nervous breakdown” is an antiquated term used loosely to cover a variety of mental health disorders, significant distress, and anxiety.

The term is not used by physicians and other mental health professionals today, as it isn't a medical term, but rather one used by the sufferer to describe intense feelings of loss of control, emotional anguish, feelings of hopelessness/helplessness, and intense sadness and depression.

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Nervous breakdowns are most likely to occur when an individual is experiencing intense stress, there are significant life changes that the individual has been unable to adjust, challenges that have not been negotiated, or unusually high demands that have become emotionally and physically taxing for the individual.

As previously noted, it is not a term used to describe a specific mental illness or ongoing mental health condition.

People describing feelings of a nervous breakdown usually do so as a way to explain emotional distress that may be outside of the realm of healthy functioning. What some people call a nervous breakdown may indicate an underlying mental health problem — including, but not limited to, conditions such as complex post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety — that may require immediate medical/psychiatric attention.

The signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown can vary and may look different from person to person or from culture to culture and religion to religion.


It's helpful to consider individual differences, as well as culture and religion, before determining whether or not someone is experiencing a nervous breakdown.

Signs your mental health may be at risk include the following:

Intense feelings of sadness or other depressive symptoms

Feelings of helplessness/hopelessness

Avoidance of things once enjoyed, e.g. going out with friends/family, missed appointments, etc.

Calling out sick for work for several days or longer

Inability to function at previous level

Changes in eating/sleeping patterns

Decline in activities of daily life (referred to by mental health professionals as ADL's)

Extreme mood swings

Feelings of loss of control


Panic attacks

Paranoia/unexplainable fears


Suicidal thoughts/ideations

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Risk factors that can lead to a nervous breakdown include:

Intense stress and anxiety

Significant change or loss

Serious financial crisis

Family history of mental illness

Poor or inadequate sleep patterns

Recent illness or injury

Recent traumatic event

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If you feel that you are experiencing a nervous breakdown, get help.

There are many treatment options that are available that can help those struggling with a nervous breakdown resolve negative symptoms.


Depending on the underlying causes and mental or physical health conditions involved, treatment may include:

Individual psychotherapy

Taking prescription medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication to treat chemical imbalances


Practicing alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, regular yoga/exercise

Incorporating meditation in your daily routine

Utilizing deep breathing exercises

Reducing or eliminating caffeine intake

Getting enough sleep

Creating a personal schedule

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Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford is a psychologist who focuses on relationships, dating, and personality issues, as well as a Certified Relationship Specialist with Diplomate Status, and an expert with the American Psychotherapy Association.