Signs of a Nervous Breakdown: Recognizing Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

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Signs of a Nervous Breakdown

“The only way to beat my crazy was doing something crazier. Thank you.” 

We know that pop culture takes some serious liberties when it comes to mental health and portraying mental illness in a film or show. “The Silver Linings Playbook”, the film which features the quote above, is said to be one of the best representations of a nervous breakdown. 

But, what is a nervous breakdown? Does it mean a person has “lost touch with reality,” which would perhaps be defined as disassociation? Or does it mean they’ve had an anxiety or panic attack?

People have been saying the phrase for years and years, using it to reference a huge spectrum of behaviors and disorders. You’ll hear about someone having a “nervous breakdown” and most of the time get no details beyond that.

A Closer Look at the Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown

Let’s start by clarifying that a nervous breakdown is not actually a technical term or a diagnosis that you would get from a provider. Actually, most of the time that you hear someone saying nervous breakdown or mental breakdown, it’s likely that they aren’t referring to any specific diagnosis, illness, or situation. Most frequently, a nervous breakdown is seen as someone “snapping.” 

A lot of times the people who face a nervous breakdown are actually considered “normal” or healthy beforehand. It is rarely a term that is associated with someone with a diagnosed mental illness.

This makes sense when you keep in mind that the term “nervous breakdown” is not clinical and most of those in treatment for their mental illness will start to use more of the clinical terms they learn in treatment. So, instead of your friend Mark, who has anxiety, saying he had a nervous breakdown he is more likely to say he had an anxiety attack. Or your cousin Monica, who has bipolar disorder, instead of saying she had a breakdown she is more likely to say she had a fit of mania.

When we hear things like “they were totally fine and completely normal, but then they just snapped,” it is normally what you would recognize as a breakdown of some type.

Signs of a Nervous Breakdown

Since nervous breakdowns aren’t clinical, they don’t typically come with a guide of signs and symptoms like you would see with other mental illnesses. But, that doesn’t mean that there are not certain things to keep an eye out for.

One thing that can give you the biggest indication of a breakdown is that it will impact daily life. It will interfere with someone’s ability to carry on with their normal activities. Maybe they can’t seem to leave the bed, or they are breaking down in tears without explanation, or maybe they have an overwhelming sense of fear or irritability. 

Another part of a breakdown that can make it difficult to directly identify is that some of the symptoms or signs, especially if they are long-term, match other diagnoses like panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and dissociative fugue or a fugue state. In instances where you notice a change in yourself or a loved one over the long term, it is critical to seek care at a mental health treatment center or at least start the process with your family doctor.

Every now and again, we all get pushed past what we like to call the “breaking point,” but that point is different from person to person. That is the tricky thing. Everyone is so different, and since a nervous breakdown is not actually associated with a clinical diagnosis, it can be hard to know what to do or what it means. Now, anyone can have a breakdown, and we all get overwhelmed sometimes. 

As a result, some of us cry, others laugh, and some try to cope with other methods. We are all so unique that it can be hard to know if someone is having a breakdown moment or if they are showing signs of a more serious mental illness.

That isn’t to say that uniqueness is all bad when it comes to our mental health.

United as Individuals

One of the reassuring aspects of mental health is also one of the reasons why it can be so confusing and difficult to understand: every person has their own mental health.
The reason it’s reassuring is that it unites us. Once you understand that your mental health is a normal aspect of life you can then begin to focus on how mental health struggles you may be having are also normal.
The reason this is confusing, however, is because we are all experiencing different struggles and need different things. Although we understand certain mental health disorders and aspects of them, what truly makes each situation unique is that we do not know how each person feels as they are struggling.

There is actually one thing that everyone facing a nervous breakdown will have in common, however.

Stress, Stress, and More Stress

Stress is actually something that can be found in all instances of a breakdown. This is partly why, when movies like “Silver Linings Playbook” show a breakdown, they usually give us the much-needed context of what is happening in the character’s life. That context helps us understand what has pushed them to feel so overwhelmed to the point they are acting out of character.

We mentioned before the signs of a nervous breakdown sort of don’t exist in a clinical sense because they are so similar to other illnesses. Stress, however, is one thing that can be directly associated with a breakdown or “snap.”

Stress can have some serious side effects on our mental and physical health, so it may be worth looking at some of the specifics of stress.

Mental Signs of Stress

Since our brain is essentially the control center of our body, whatever is going on in it will have a much larger impact than we might even realize. For instance, according to the Mayo Clinic, some mental signs of stress may include

  • restlessness
  • anxiety
  • inability to focus
  • sadness or depression
  • irritability or anger
  • feeling generally overwhelmed

All of these signs may play a factor in how stress is affecting a person, but like we’ve mentioned previously, everyone experiences stress differently. Also, our brain is constantly working and may even be impacted by stress in ways we don’t perceive.

One way to take stock of how stress might be affecting you, even subconsciously, is to look at your behaviors. The Mayo Clinic recommends specifically checking for any new occurrences in anger, as mentioned above, but also crying, negativity, smoking, and even overeating.

It isn’t too uncommon for someone to say “But I don’t feel stressed,” only to later realize they’ve eaten a tub of ice cream and an entire bag of cookies, or that they’ve smoked four packs of cigarettes in two days. We’re all guided by our thoughts and emotions, so if stress has bogged those things down we sometimes compensate without even realizing it. Our bodies may try to level out the situation in ways we’d rather it didn’t.

Our minds also influence our physical well-being as well. That’s why stress can have physical symptoms from mild to extreme.

Physical Signs of Stress

Someone who is struggling with stress can feel things that range from mildly annoying to worrisome and scary. That’s one reason why stress can impact our physical lives even more than we realize. Sometimes, stress doesn’t just feel like being tired or irritable. Sometimes it feels like you might be dying.

Some common physical signs of stress are

  • headache
  • muscle tension and/or pain
  • chest pain
  • fatigue/exhaustion
  • noticeable changes in sex drive
  • upset stomach/nausea
  • trouble sleeping

Some of these can trick a person into thinking they are experiencing something drastic like a heart attack. And because there are some heart attacks linked to stress it is not a totally impossible situation. One important thing to keep in mind, though, is that stress-related aches and pains, including chest pain, can all begin to lessen once someone has been able to calm down.

Too much stress might even lead to a panic attack, which also may feel like something more severe or life-threatening is happening. People report feeling as if they can’t breathe or that they’re going to pass out; dizziness or a “fuzzy” feeling, tingling sensations in the arms or hands, and stomach pain or nausea.

So, if we’re sometimes dealing with stress in ways we can’t perceive and stress is capable of making us feel like we’re dying, what’s the solution?

Tips for Coping With Stress and Avoiding a Breakdown

Trying to regain control while feeling like you are incapable of doing so might feel like trying to rewind time. But with focus and dedication it actually is possible to manage stress and regain a feeling of calm and control. There are some fantastic ways to go about this, ways we here at SUN Behavioral wholly recommend.

First, focusing on your sleep schedule is maybe the most important. Sleep plays a very important role in how our days will feel for us, so your first goal should be to get a good night’s sleep. You should have a comfortable temperature where you sleep, along with total darkness. Any big shift in temperature, light, or sound can derail your sleep schedule and affect your days and weeks, along with your mental health and stress levels.

Eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of physical activity are very important too. Whether you’re going for regular walks, jogging around the block, or playing a sport, that physical activity will expend energy and keep your body healthy. And a healthy diet will make it so that your body isn’t struggling with the normal daily functions.

Relaxing with a hobby can be incredibly beneficial for those dealing with stress. Maybe you like knitting or are a fan of reading. Or you enjoy fishing or gardening. Whatever the activity is, a hobby can help take your mind off the stress and the situations causing stress and allow you to find a place of calm that is just for you.

It is true, however, that sometimes stress isn’t responding to these things, and you feel like you cannot get past it. If that happens, and if you feel like you’re stuck or on a path to having a breakdown, it might be time to call someone for help.

Getting Help Handling It All With SUN Behavioral

SUN Behavioral is here to help you solve your unmet needs. If stress is bogging you down and making your days seem impossible to navigate, we can help. We offer mental health recovery for anyone, of any age, from adolescents to seniors. Our treatments are evidence-based and focus on finding the best way for each person to recover.

Asking for help can be difficult and even more so when you may not know what you need to ask help for. Stress and anxiety may seem like unavoidable parts of life, but that is not entirely accurate. Our days may involve stressful situations, but debilitating stress and anxiety are not things you have to live with. Call us at (859) 429-5188 today, tomorrow, or any time to talk about getting treatment for anxiety or stress. You can find peace again.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Deal With a Nervous Breakdown?

The best way to deal with and combat a nervous breakdown is to work on healthy ways of coping with stress. One of the best ways to focus your energy on healthy coping mechanisms is to take part in various types of therapy and then use the life skills learned to cope with the stress in your life.

What Is a Nervous Breakdown Called Today?

Today, most people refer to nervous breakdowns as “snaps”, “mental breaks” or more generically just “breakdowns”. None of these are clinical or technical terms but are more just common slang for feeling overwhelmed and overly stressed.

How Long Does it Take To Recover From a Nervous Breakdown?

Since nervous breakdowns are not a formal clinical diagnosis there is not a formal expected recovery time. Most people have short episodes but the only way to ensure that it doesn’t become a chronic problem is to spend time learning to process and cope with stress in a healthy way.

What Happens When You Have a Nervous Breakdown?

Many people experience a breakdown in different ways. For some, it is like a panic attack or anxiety attack. For others, they act out of character or lash out unexpectedly at those close to them. Some even find themselves struggling to leave the bed and are overwhelmed by tears like those who experience depression. Remember, since there is no formal diagnosis for a nervous breakdown, there is also no formal list of symptoms or signs that someone may experience.