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What is a nervous breakdown?

4 minute read
Woman talking to therapist about her nervous breakdown

This response to extreme stress can make it hard for you to function. Learn about the signs and symptoms, and how you can get help. 

Lauren Bedosky

By Lauren Bedosky

We all get stressed out sometimes. But if you suddenly feel so overwhelmed by stress and anxiety that you can’t even function, you may be having what some people call a nervous breakdown. Also known as a mental breakdown, this is an intense response to mental or emotional stress in your life.

Nervous breakdowns can cause significant mental and physical problems if they aren’t treated. That’s why it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional. We’ll explain the signs and symptoms of this condition and what to do if you think you might be having one.

Nervous breakdowns, explained

“Nervous breakdown” isn’t an official medical diagnosis. According to the American Psychological Association, it’s a popular term for an emotional illness that appears suddenly, causes mental distress and makes it hard to function day to day. The symptoms are often caused by an underlying condition, such as anxiety or depression, says the Mayo Clinic.

It’s normal to experience some amount of stress in our day-to-day lives, but we have only so much bandwidth to handle stress, says Jenny Yip, PsyD. She’s a Los Angeles-based psychologist who specializes in treating people with anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Under extreme stress, the sympathetic nervous system can get overwhelmed, Yip says. The sympathetic nervous system is what triggers your body’s natural fight-or-flight response, which is a surge of stress hormones that causes your heart rate and breathing to increase in response to perceived threats. During a nervous breakdown, that system malfunctions: Your stress hormones spike, even though you are not in danger.

Yip compares it to filling a garbage can. Under normal circumstances, you add more and more trash to the bin until you empty it out at the end of the day. The next day, you start over. “However, there are certain life stressors that can add more to that garbage can than you’d be able to handle on a given day,” she says.

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Signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown

When your fight-or-flight system stays in overdrive for extended periods, it can affect basic bodily functions such as sleep and digestion. You may have trouble sleeping and eating, which can make you feel irritable, anxious and fatigued, explains Sidrah Khan. She’s a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Khan Counseling in Los Angeles.

During a nervous breakdown, you might experience panic attacks or sudden outbursts of sadness or anger. Other signs include:

  • Calling in sick to work for days in a row because your job seems overwhelming
  • Canceling activities you normally enjoy
  • Skipping appointments

Persistent nervous breakdowns can also lead to bodily changes over time. These can include:

  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Hair loss
  • Worsening of skin conditions, such as acne or eczema flare-ups
  • A noticeable dip in your energy levels

Common causes of a nervous breakdown

Certain events and stressors can increase the odds of a nervous breakdown, including:

  • Too many responsibilities at work (burnout)
  • Too many responsibilities at home
  • Divorce
  • Death of a loved one
  • Loss of a friendship
  • Job loss
  • Financial hardship
  • A severe injury or health condition

How therapy can help you feel better

Seek professional help if you’re experiencing the symptoms of a nervous breakdown, Yip says. You can see a licensed mental health professional for virtual or in-person treatment. Your primary care doctor can also give you a referral to a therapist or counselor.

One of the most common approaches to treating nervous breakdowns is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a common type of talk therapy. In CBT therapy, your therapist helps you become aware of negative thinking patterns. Then you learn how to challenge them so you can respond in a more effective way.

“This method increases your mental flexibility so you can identify the faulty mind traps that get you feeling stuck,” Yip says. “Then it helps you identify a more realistic thinking pattern so it’s not all gloom and doom.”

CBT also tackles the behaviors that contribute to a nervous breakdown. It could include practicing breathing exercises to avoid triggering your body’s stress response. Or it might mean scheduling time to meditate during your workday. (For more about deep-breathing exercises, read our article on stress and the body.)

The key is to replace harmful habits with healthier ones. “By changing your behaviors, you’re also changing your thinking,” Yip says. “And if you can change your thinking, you can change your mood, and so on.”

It takes time to undo unhealthy habits, so expect to spend at least 2 months working on CBT with your therapist. Some people need a year or more in therapy to see lasting results. Don’t stress about the timeline. The most important thing is to get help so that you can start feeling like yourself again.

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Additional sources
Definition of nervous breakdown: American Psychological Association (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology
Nervous breakdown symptoms: Mayo Clinic (2016). “Nervous Breakdown: What Does It Mean?”
Fight-or-flight stress response: Harvard Medical School (2020). “Understanding the Stress Response”
CBT overview: Mayo Clinic (n.d.). “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”