Nearly everyone is familiar with the term “nervous breakdown.” It’s a term commonly used by people to describe challenging situations in life with which they cannot cope. In contrast, a psychotic breakdown is a mental health emergency that leads an individual to lose touch with reality. Individuals experiencing high levels of mental stress may also experience psychotic breaks. But how do psychotic breaks differ from mental breakdowns? Understanding the difference between the two mental health concerns can aid in determining the appropriate medical and mental health treatment to improve your quality of life.
What Is a Nervous Breakdown?
A nervous breakdown, also known as a mental breakdown, is neither a medical term nor a clinical diagnosis of any mental health condition; instead, it’s used by many people to describe a period of intense stress and an inability to cope with life’s challenges. What causes a nervous breakdown, how much stress is required, and how long it lasts varies from person to person as everyone has a different breaking point.
Although mental health professionals no longer use it as an umbrella term for mental illnesses, a nervous breakdown isn’t a healthy reaction to a stressful situation. But it can be warning signs of an underlying and untreated medical condition or psychiatric disorders such as major depression or anxiety disorders that require your attention.
What Causes a Nervous Breakdown?
In general, nervous breakdowns are caused by immense stress and the inability to deal with it properly. However, what causes stress and the rate at which it escalates can vary greatly from person to person. For example, one person may have a nervous breakdown after years of having too many responsibilities at work and home and not having good strategies to cope with them. For another person, a sudden tragedy, like the death of a family member, may cause extreme stress that leads to an emotional breakdown.
Other contributing life events may include:
- Academic pressure and responsibilities
- Social and political unrest
- Natural disasters such as wildfire, floods, and COVID-19
- A divorce or loss of children in a custody trial
- The loss of a job or some other form of financial difficulty
- A traumatic experience like abuse, discrimination, or a mass shooting
- Major life changes such as relocation
- Planning an important event such as a wedding, graduation, or vacation
Several risk factors make certain individuals more susceptible to experiencing an emotional breakdown, including:
- Possessing a high-achieving personality and being a perfectionist.
- Working in a high-stakes, high-pressure work environment.
- Having a pessimistic attitude toward life in general.
- Lack of a strong support system.
- Having an untreated mental illness.
- Experiencing parental burnout (physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion from the chronic stress of parenting).
Stress has become a normal part of daily life. But when emotions become too intense, they can contribute to a mental breakdown. While these breakdowns can be frightening and debilitating, you can take steps to prevent them, such as recognizing common symptoms, taking preventative measures, seeking treatment, and attending support groups.
Signs and Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown
A nervous breakdown can manifest in several ways depending on the individual experiencing it. Aside from the inability to function normally, the signs and symptoms vary depending on where a person lives, their culture, and how they deal with stress in general.
Common symptoms of a mental breakdown include:
- Feeling anxious, depressed, sad, or irritable
- Feeling emotionally and physically tired
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- Showing a lack of interest or motivation
- Unable to complete tasks or keep appointments
- Forgetting to eat or drink
- Having low self-esteem
- Experiencing abrupt mood swings or unexpected outbursts
- Having appetite changes or weight changes
- Failing to attend to one’s hygiene
- Having suicidal ideations or thoughts of self-harm
In addition to these symptoms, individuals experiencing a mental breakdown may also experience panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, digestive issues, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
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.
What Is a Psychotic Break?
To comprehend a psychotic break, one must first understand psychosis. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), psychosis is a term used to describe a mental condition that causes a person to lose touch with reality. These individuals may see and hear things that aren’t there and be unable to distinguish between reality and illusion. Psychosis can manifest as a separate disorder or a symptom of another mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), over 100,000 young Americans experience psychosis annually. And up to 3 in 100 individuals will experience an episode at some point in their lives.
A psychotic break is the initial manifestation of psychotic symptoms or the sudden onset of psychotic symptoms after a period of remission. During a psychotic episode, a person’s thoughts and perceptions are disrupted, and they may experience hallucinations, delusions, abnormal behavior, disorganized speech, and incoherence. A mental breakdown does not rule out the possibility of psychosis, but a psychotic break refers specifically to a psychotic episode.
What Causes Psychotic Breaks?
We’re still learning about what causes psychosis, but multiple variables are most likely at work. But we do know that teenagers and young adults are at increased risk of developing an episode of psychosis because of hormonal changes throughout puberty.
Other factors that can contribute to psychosis include:
- Genetics – Numerous genes can contribute to the development of psychosis. However, the mere possession of a gene does not guarantee psychosis. Ongoing research will improve our understanding of the genes involved in psychosis.
- Trauma – A psychotic episode can be triggered by a traumatic event such as a death, war, or sexual assault. Traumatic events may result in psychosis, depending on the type of trauma and the individual’s age.
- Substance abuse – The use of drugs such as marijuana, LSD, amphetamines, alcohol, and others can raise the risk of psychosis in vulnerable individuals.
- Physical illness or injury – Psychosis can be caused by traumatic brain injuries, brain tumors, strokes, HIV, and certain neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and dementia.
- Mental health conditions – Psychosis is occasionally a sign of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, or severe depression.
Because there are different causes of psychosis, it’s important to consult with a qualified mental health professional to receive a thorough assessment and accurate diagnosis.
Signs and Symptoms of a Psychotic Break
Psychotic breakdowns, like nervous breakdowns, vary from person to person, so they will not look the same for everyone. Early psychosis, often known as first-episode psychosis (FEP), rarely occurs unexpectedly. Typically, a person experiences gradual, non-specific alterations in thoughts and perceptions but is unaware of what is happening. Although it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact onset of the first psychotic episode, the following warning signs and symptoms strongly suggest a psychotic break:
- Trouble thinking clearly or concentrating.
- A worrisome drop in grades or job performance.
- Unusual ideas, strange feelings, or having no feelings at all.
- A decline in self-care or personal hygiene.
- Feeling suspicious or uneasy around others.
- Withdrawing from family and friends and spending a lot more time alone.
- Experiencing auditory hallucinations.
- Experiencing visual hallucinations.
- Struggling with suicidal ideations.
Following a psychotic break or episode, your mind may become so overloaded that you become unresponsive. This symptom is called catatonia and may result from your body’s instinct to protect itself from potentially harmful ideas and acts during an episode, or it may occur independently as your psychosis progresses.
Difference Between a Psychotic Break and a Nervous Breakdown
A psychotic breakdown can sometimes be precipitated by a nervous breakdown, particularly in individuals with a family history of psychiatric disorders or those battling substance use disorders. Although both conditions share some symptoms, the fundamental difference between them is that a person experiencing a psychotic break is unaware of their surroundings and has completely lost touch with reality. On the other hand, a nervous breakdown results from tremendous stress that renders a person incapable of normal functioning. This emotional breakdown does not create dissociation from reality; rather, the subject is perfectly aware of their surroundings.
Treatment for a Psychotic Break
The most common treatment setting for a psychotic break is acute psychiatric stabilization in a hospital setting. Acute stabilization involves the combination of medical and psychiatric interventions provided in a medical setting on a short-term basis and tailored to the severity of the specific emergency.
Psychotherapy and medication are traditional treatments for psychosis. Early treatment of psychosis, particularly during the initial episode, yields the best results. Psychosis relies on interconnected treatments that work together to address both the acute phase of a psychotic break and the ongoing maintenance of symptoms and any underlying medical or psychiatric conditions. In situations of psychosis, antipsychotic medication is usually the first line of treatment. This prescription response is tailored to the patient’s schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or any mental health disorder producing their psychosis.
Treatment for a Nervous Breakdown
Depending on the situation, the diagnosis, and the individual’s preferences, treatment for a nervous breakdown may include medication or psychotherapy. An underlying mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety, can be treated with medication, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you break the pattern of negative thinking and help you learn proper coping skills.
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.
In addition to medicine, behavioral therapy, and support groups, simple lifestyle changes can also help you overcome a mental breakdown. These include improving your diet, physical activity, and sleeping habits. A balanced diet can increase your energy levels, sleep patterns, and immunity and prevent you from feeling lethargic and depressed. Learning relaxation techniques, such as meditation or breathing exercises, may also be beneficial and can be used whenever stress levels rise.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you think someone you know is experiencing a mental breakdown or psychosis, encourage the person to seek treatment as early as possible. A psychotic break or a nervous breakdown could indicate a serious mental health condition or medical complication. And finding the right type of treatment can help you with your emotional, mental, and behavioral symptoms.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with a mental health disorder, substance use disorder, or co-occurring disorder, Futures Recovery Healthcare is here for you.
Futures Recovery Healthcare has a dedicated mental health treatment program and substance abuse treatment program that can assist you in receiving the care you need. Patients can receive comprehensive care for depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, bipolar disorders, and other related conditions through our multidisciplinary team approach, including 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.