Mental health researchers have identified the nervous breakdown as a condition that closely resembles an adjustment disorder, with combined feelings of anxiety and a depressed mood. Genetic factors, life experiences, and an overall decline in functioning contribute to a nervous breakdown. However, the medical consensus is that a nervous breakdown is distinctly different than a diagnosed mental illness, although the condition may share symptoms with some serious mental illnesses.
In the 1800s, it was common practice for doctors to commit persons with mental illnesses to mental asylums. The term "nervous breakdown" emerged as a diagnosis in the 1900s, with physicians using the term to describe a wide variety of nervous disorders. Some may have used nervous breakdowns as an alternative diagnosis to prevent patients from being committed to an asylum. Physicians viewed a nervous breakdown as a temporary nervous issue. They believed that accumulation of stressors or a severe crisis triggered the condition. Medical professionals no longer use the term “nervous breakdown” as a valid diagnosis.
There was a much more casual use of the term “nervous breakdown” in the early 20th century. Over time, it became a catch-all phrase medical practitioners used to describe an emotional, personal crisis of any type. But following WWI and WWII, more severe psychological issues were exhibited by the soldiers returning from war, and physicians struggled to come up with a term to describe these conditions. Nervous breakdowns evolved into “psychological distresses” to describe the soldiers’ mental health issues. Soon after, the American Psychiatric Association developed the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, establishing specific symptom guidelines regarding the diagnosis of mental illnesses. Use of the term “nervous breakdown” diminished during the 1960s.
Although the term “nervous breakdown” technically has no clinical meaning, it is a condition with symptoms that affect many people. It describes difficulty carrying out a daily routine due to feelings of deep depression and overwhelming anxiety. Small doses of stress can teach us to perform under pressure. A constant stream of stress day-in and day-out negatively affects both the physical body and the mind. A nervous breakdown is a result of being inundated with stress. It may start with a recurring feeling of being “on edge.” Signs of a nervous breakdown include withdrawal, an onset of poor hygiene, a lack of sleep, and a change in eating habits.
Many life events lead to stress. When people do not or are unable to deal with stress healthily, a nervous breakdown can result. Life events such as a death in the family or a divorce are triggers that can lead to a breakdown. Often, diagnosis of a serious illness or a debilitating injury causes similarly debilitating levels of stress. Becoming overwhelmed with work or home responsibilities can cause issues as well. A lack of sleep or recurring financial trouble may also lead to a nervous breakdown.
Individuals having a nervous breakdown may experience a combination of symptoms, but depression and anxiety are fairly standard. Depression can trigger psychological symptoms such as thoughts of self-harm or flashbacks to a traumatic event. Behavioral symptoms can include mood swings, angry outbursts, or feelings of paranoia. Some people experience physical symptoms as well, including panic attacks, chest pains, and an inability to breathe. High blood pressure, dizziness, stomach problems, and tense muscles can also develop.
The term “nervous breakdown” is too vague and should never be used to describe a psychiatric health condition, say mental health professionals. Today, diagnosing an individual who is unable to make decisions or perform work or familial duties requires more specific terminology. Depression and anxiety disorders are specific mental health issues. Although a nervous breakdown can cause depression, anxiety, hallucinations, and feelings of paranoia, serious mental and cognitive conditions and illnesses elicit these symptoms as well, such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and alcohol withdrawal.
Conventional treatments are available to control symptoms of a nervous breakdown. Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications are effective methods. Others find one-on-one psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy works well. A combination of these treatments is common. Alternative treatments, such as yoga, acupuncture, and massage therapy can successfully address sleep disturbances and high anxiety. In some cases, the symptoms may be serious enough for residential treatment, which can be helpful in identifying factors or behaviors causing stress in daily life.
Reducing stress that could lead to a nervous breakdown starts with making lifestyle changes. A healthy diet and regular exercise promote self-care and are good starting points. Getting enough sleep every night can change the way an individual deals with daily stresses. Spending less time alone and reaching out to others to engage in social activities also helps diminish stress and increases feelings of well-being. For those dealing with recurring depression and anxiety, it is best to avoid the use of drugs or alcohol, which can exacerbate symptoms.
Everyone feels overwhelmed at some point in their life. But if an individual feels that day-to-day tasks have become too difficult due to stress and other internal factors, it may be time to make an appointment with a doctor. The symptoms that indicate a nervous breakdown usually develop over time. Daily life, even simple tasks, begin to feel impossible. Loss of appetite could be an increasingly serious issue. Physical symptoms such as high blood pressure may develop, in addition to psychological or psychiatric symptoms. Recurring thoughts of self-harm also indicate a need to speak to a medical professional.
Many medical professionals consider a nervous breakdown a mental health crisis, but not an emergency. However, an individual may exhibit violent or aggressive behavior, threaten self-harm, become unresponsive, hallucinate, or show other signs of psychosis. These actions warrant an immediate call for medical help, as they are signs of a mental health emergency. Talk of suicide always indicates an emergency.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.