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Mental Breakdowns: Definition, Symptoms, and Treatments


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More and more of us are on the point of a mental breakdown thanks to work stress, parental expectations, and other modern stresses. Anxiety and stress are normal human experiences that affect everyone. But when these emotions reach a breaking point, they can devastate a person’s ability to function normally. While mental breakdowns can be frightening and distressing, identifying the symptoms, taking preventative steps, and getting treatment as soon as possible can reduce the intensity and impact of a mental breakdown. 

What Is a Mental Breakdown?

A mental breakdown, also known as a nervous breakdown, describes a period of intense stress or mental distress that results in an individual’s incapacity to function on a daily basis. The phrase “nervous breakdown” is not a medical term nor a clinical diagnosis of a specific mental health condition, and it lacks a universally accepted definition. Hence, the term is no longer used by mental health professionals today. However, what others see as a nervous breakdown can also be an undiagnosed and underlying mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that require your attention.

Symptoms of a Mental Breakdown 

The signs and symptoms of a mental breakdown vary from person to person, based on the underlying cause. Aside from a person’s inability to function normally, several other symptoms can also suggest that you or someone you know may be on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Here are some symptoms and warning signs to look out for:

  • Extreme mood swings
  • Paranoia and uneasiness  
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Changes in eating, sleeping, and self-care patterns 
  • Withdrawing or avoiding routine social situations 
  • Neglecting appointments and commitments 
  • Poor or decreased performance at school or work 
  • Suicidal thoughts and ideation 

Some of the physical symptoms of a nervous breakdown include:

  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Extreme fatigue 
  • Racing heart or heart palpitations 
  • Back pain 
  • Excessive sweating 
  • Headaches or migraines 
  • Muscle tightness or soreness 
  • Dizziness 

A mental breakdown can sometimes be mistaken for a panic attack, as both have similar physical and psychological symptoms. However, panic attacks appear suddenly, peak after a few minutes, and typically subside within 10 minutes. In contrast, mental breakdowns can last from a few hours to a few weeks and temporarily interfere with many aspects of your life.

If you’re experiencing a nervous breakdown, believe you may harm yourself, or are contemplating suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or connect to the Lifeline by dialing 988. The new three-digit dialing code, 988, will direct calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Beginning July 16, 2022, this dialing code will be available to everyone in the United States. Even after 988 is deployed nationally, the present Lifeline phone number (1-800-273-8255) will remain available to those in mental distress or suicidal crisis.

Mental Breakdowns Definition, Symptoms, And Treatments - Futures Recovery Healthcare

Causes and Triggers of a Nervous Breakdown

The primary cause of a nervous breakdown is the inability to deal with intense stress brought on by external factors. The following are some of the potential causes and triggers of a nervous breakdown:

  • Recent injury or illness that makes day-to-day living challenging.
  • A recent traumatic event, such as a family death or a mass shooting.
  • Social and political unrest.
  • Natural disasters such as wildfire, floods, and COVID-19
  • Persistent stress at work or school.
  • Relationship changes, such as divorce.
  • Significant life changes, such as relocation or job loss.
  • Being subjected to violence and discrimination.
  • Planning an important event such as a wedding, graduation, or vacation.
  • Serious financial problems, such as a home in foreclosure.
  • Struggling with a chronic medical condition.
  • Working long hours with insufficient sleep.
  • Lack of support system.
  • Experiencing parental burnout.
  • Family history of mental health conditions.

There is no limit to the possible causes or combination of causes that can lead to an emotional breakdown.

Treating a Nervous Breakdown

If you think you or someone you love may be experiencing a nervous breakdown, contact a primary care physician or mental health professional immediately. Seeking professional help is especially critical if you risk hurting yourself or others. In such instances, a hospital or inpatient care may be necessary for stabilization and treatment. 

Your doctor will first perform a complete physical examination and discuss any medications you are currently taking to rule out medical conditions that may be contributing to the symptoms. Then, they may refer you to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist for further evaluation and treatments. 

Treatment approaches can include:

  • Psychotherapy  
  • Medications
  • Support Groups 
  • Lifestyle changes


The main treatment for psychological or emotional stress is talk therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one such therapy. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), CBT is a popular talk therapy that has proven effective in treating anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. It involves identifying and changing irrational thought patterns based on emotional beliefs and learning coping skills to manage challenging situations. Your doctor will discuss your individual treatment goals and develop a CBT program that best fits you. 


In addition, to talk therapy, your doctor may prescribe some medications to help manage your mental health crisis or diagnosed mental health condition. This can include antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. If the stress is causing insomnia, you may be prescribed a sleep aid to break the cycle of sleeplessness and reduce your stress. 

Support Groups 

Participating in support groups or self-help groups can provide individuals undergoing a mental breakdown with numerous benefits by bringing together individuals who are experiencing or have experienced similar situations. A support group provides a safe environment where you can obtain practical, constructive advice and beneficial information. When searching for a local support group, your primary care physician, mental health professional, or local religious institution are often the best places to start. You can also search for a local meeting on the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and Mental Health America (MHA) websites.

Lifestyle Changes

If you are feeling overwhelmed and on the edge of a breakdown, consider the following lifestyle changes:

  • Avoid consuming coffee and alcohol, as they may worsen your symptoms and interfere with your sleep.
  • Exercise regularly to improve your sleep quality and reduce your stress.
  • Maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Create a bedtime habit and regimen that will help you sleep properly.
  • Participate in stress-relieving activities, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation.
  • Reduce the number of everyday responsibilities and only take on what you can handle.

Individuals who have recovered from a mental breakdown report that it drove them to confront their problems, seek assistance, and develop stronger coping skills. Many people who received appropriate care went on to get their undiagnosed mental health issues treated and managed. People who have received treatment and counseling following a nervous breakdown are often more resilient and more suited to cope with life challenges.

It is important to remember that nervous breakdowns are temporary conditions. You or your loved one can recover and lead a healthier, stress-free life with the right treatment. 

The Mental Health Program at Futures Recovery Healthcare works tirelessly to assist individuals and families in obtaining treatment and support for various mental health disorders in a judgment-free environment. 

We treat depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, and other related conditions using clinical, psychiatric, medication, medical, and wellness interventions and support. To learn more about our mental health care services, contact us online or call 866-804-2098.


Our team is here to guide you through your path to recovery.

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