Nervous breakdown. Mental breakdown. Midlife Crisis. To most people, these are casual phrases describing someone’s inability to function normally due to severe psychological stress.
The use of these generic phrases allow both friends and strangers to talk about mental health without getting too technical, too clinical or too attached to someone’s personal issues. The problem with this is that many people forget it’s a real issue that merits serious treatment.
While there isn’t a standard clinical definition for a nervous breakdown or a precise psychiatric diagnosis — technically speaking, a nervous or mental breakdown isn’t a clinical term — many health experts today refer to a nervous breakdown as a “modern mental health crisis.”
Can you really have a nervous breakdown?
In short, yes. By pseudo-definition, a nervous breakdown (medically known as a modern mental health crisis) is an event in which a person has reached his or her limit and can’t cope or function normally or effectively in day-to-day life. The event often occurs in response to stress or external influences — such as divorce, unemployment or the death of a loved one — and it may indicate an underlying issue that needs attention, like depression or anxiety. These events are considered temporary and acute episodes, signaling the need for an individual to pause, relax, recuperate or even seek professional help.
If you think you're experiencing a mental health crisis, get help. Talk to your primary care doctor about your signs and symptoms, or seek help from a mental health provider.
Common signs and symptoms
Symptoms of a nervous breakdown vary from person to person and can manifest in different ways. Here are some common ones to pay attention to:
Depressive symptoms: Serious, clinical depression can trigger a mental health crisis. Loss of interest in things you once enjoyed are potential clues of depression, as is sudden, dramatic weight gain or weight loss and changes in sleep. Thoughts of suicide, self-mutilation and loss of all hope are very serious indicators. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, even if just slightly, seek professional help immediately.
Anxiety: Extreme anxiousness with a major stressor (like a brutal divorce) may signal a breakdown. Signs and symptoms, such as increased blood pressure, clenched or tensed muscles, clammy hands, trembling or shaking, dizziness or upset stomach, can reflect a strong anxiety component in a mental health episode.
Extreme mood swings: Mood swings and wild or unexplained outbursts can foretell a crisis. They may also indicate an underlying condition such as bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression).
Hallucinations: Hallucinations may accompany a mental health crisis, especially in certain types of depression, in substance abuse or with schizophrenia. Patients with hallucinations may sometimes prove harmful to themselves and to caregivers.
Panic attacks: Panic attacks can go hand in hand with signs of anxiety and depression. Symptoms may include increased blood pressure, pounding chest pain, difficulty breathing, feelings of unreality, an extreme level of fear and detachment from self. They may cause a person to feel more dependent, fear going out in public, or fear being in crowds or enclosed places (agoraphobia).
Paranoia: As with phobias and fear, paranoia can signal a decline in mental health. People who fear that someone is watching and following them have a significantly reduced ability to cope. Get help from the authorities if you think you’re being stalked, but seek professional medical help if there are indications that your fears are unhealthy, irrational or unfounded.
Social withdrawal: People facing a mental health crisis may isolate themselves from others, especially friends and family. Social settings can cause stress, so someone at risk of a nervous breakdown may choose alienation over social interaction. Sometimes a patient just needs time alone to recuperate from a stressful situation, but isolation that persists for an extended period may indicate trouble.
Flashbacks of a traumatic event: Traumatic events in a person’s past can often trigger symptoms of a mental breakdown in the present. It can also indicate an underlying case of post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be diagnosed by a health care professional.
Take the next steps
The feeling that it’s all just too much to handle is something that can happen to anyone, but it could indicate an underlying condition for which treatment is available. Whether it’s for you or for someone you care about, take action.
- If you or someone you know is experiencing intense levels of any of the nervous breakdown symptoms listed here, seek professional care from a psychiatrist, psychologist or anyone who’s adequately trained to help. Be sure to follow through with the appointment so you or your loved one gets the help required.
- If you’re a caregiver or just concerned about the mental health of someone, keep in mind that the person who’s experiencing these symptoms may not have enough motivation or insight to face the problem alone. He or she can benefit from your help and encouragement. Also know that as a friend or family member, you can often detect signs of mental health deterioration in advance of a crisis, and your support can be a helpful preventive tool. If the person experiencing these symptoms has enough self-awareness and caring support from others, it can make a huge difference in helping the individual regain control of his or her life.
- Need help looking for a therapist? Start by searching online: Many sites allow you to search by specialty and zip code. Other sites offer guidance on what your insurance will cover. In addition to seeking professional help, the following resources may be helpful:
- Freedom from Fear, an anxiety and depression resource site; http://www.freedomfromfear.org
- Alzheimer’s Association caregiver center on stress; http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-caregiver-stress-burnout.asp