Nervous breakdown

Synonyms: Mental collapse, acute stress disorder

Medical Specialties: Psychiatry

Clinical Definition

A nervous breakdown is technically not a medical term, but is frequently used to describe a feeling of overwhelming anxiety and stress, such that a patient is unable to maintain their previous normal level of functioning. It is commonly considered apart from any psychiatric diagnosis such as bipolar disorder, and individuals suffering from a breakdown are often responsive to therapy.

In Our Own Words

People having a "nervous breakdown" often describe stressor symptoms with a literal breakdown of functioning, such as feeling unable to get out of bed, shower, and feeling weighed down. The term nervous breakdown does not always mean a person has a mental illness, but it’s certainly possible.


A nervous breakdown is usually associated with stressful events. It was first used in relation with the mind and psychological symptoms in the second half of the 19th century, and was associated with symptoms related to mental and physical exhaustion, often referred to – rather poetically – as melancholia. 

Relevant Conditions
  • Depression
  • Caregiver burnout
  • Post traumatic stress disorder
Side Effects
  • Overwhelming stress
  • Feeling unable to perform daily life functions
  • Feeling restless, jumpy
  • Stomach problems, nausea
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Excessive fatigue without exertion
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  • Van Rhenen, W., “From Stress to Engagement.” Chapter 2: Four-Dimensional Symptom Questionnaire (4DSQ): Measuring distress and other mental health problems in a working population 2008. Accessed August 2013.
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