Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown

It’s one of the most common descriptives we hear when someone is feeling over-stressed, hopelessly anxious, and, in a word, "fried." Yet there’s actually no clear medical definition of the phrase.

symptoms of a nervous breakdown

"Nervous breakdown" is an informal phrase used for any number of mental health conditions and possibly for a few physical illnesses as well.

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Many of us have heard stories of the 1950s housewife who had a nervous breakdown and had to spend time in a medical facility. But “nervous breakdown” is not a medical diagnosis. That’s right: There is no official or medical definition for the phrase “nervous breakdown.”

So what was that 1950s housewife—and many other people like her—suffering from? Who knows? It might have been depression or a panic attack or perhaps substance abuse or some sort of chronic illness, such as fibromyalgia.

Digging Deep for a “Nervous Breakdown” Definition

“Nervous breakdown” is an informal phrase used for any number of mental health conditions and possibly for a few physical illnesses as well. While the expression is falling somewhat out of fashion, the term “nervous breakdown” is often used to refer to illnesses that are either mental or emotional in nature or have a strong mental or emotional component and that leave a person temporarily unable to function or able to meet the demands of everyday life.

Perhaps that person’s job has become too stressful, or maybe he or she is trapped in a loveless marriage and all the misery caught up. More likely, the person experiencing a nervous breakdown is suffering from a real medical condition such as depression, anxiety, or a substance abuse disorder.

Symptoms and Treatment

Definition or not, then, most of us “get” the gist behind the phrase “nervous breakdown.” The feeling that you’re headed for a nervous breakdown may make it more and more difficult to get up in the morning. You simply can’t face going into work anymore, or even seeing anyone. You may be overwhelmed by anxiety or depression, plagued with thoughts of harming yourself, or simply unable to do more than eat junk food while parked in front of the television.


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If you get to that point, it’s likely you need a break from school, work, and family responsibilities, and just as likely that you’d benefit from the help of a medical professional and/or therapist.

In the past, people who had what we would consider a nervous breakdown were often sent to inpatient healthcare facilities to recover. This is less common today, although such facilities do still exist, particularly those that treat substance abuse. Ultimately, if you feel like you’re losing your mind and just can’t go on, it’s time to put everyday responsibilities on hold, talk to a healthcare professional, and get the help you need. See also our sidebar “8 Tips for Those Feeling ‘Fried.'”



Even though it’s not official medical terminology, the phrase “nervous breakdown” has been commonly used enough that most of us understand it—and probably have experienced it. What to do?

  1. Get professional help. Start with your primary healthcare provider, who can guide you to professionals experienced in helping people through times of depression and stress. Therapy can make a major difference when it comes to coping, finding peace, and getting out of a rut.
  2. Exercise. Yes, you hear it a lot, but it’s true. Take it seriously; regular exercise—even a 30-minute brisk walk around the block every morning before or after work—can do wonders not only for your physical health but for your mental health.
  3. Keep a daily routine. Follow a familiar path from morning until bedtime; a regular routine can keep us focused, lead us to accomplish everything we need to get done, and avoid the pitfalls that come with uncertainty or idle time. So a routine that starts with, for example, a walk and your workday and includes regular meal times, consistent “play” time, productive activities, and a regular bed time can actually provide relief.
  4. Write down your thoughts. Open a file on your hard drive or keep a pen and paper close by, and make it a practice to jot down emotions, happenings, to-do lists—whatever is on your mind.
  5. Socialize. Lean on your family and trusted friends. A network of people who can sit for coffee, walk together, or share dinner can help you keep things in perspective and give you feedback on your thoughts, stresses, and challenges.
  6. Engage in a hobby… and do it with passion. Whether it’s collecting antiques, listening to music, hiking, crossword puzzles, a hobby or hobbies add flavor and fun to your life and can build knowledge and expertise.
  7. Get a pet. They’re not for everyone, but for many of us, a dog (maybe a rescue pup?), a cat (a new kitten or two?), or an aquarium full of fish can take off the edge on a daily basis.
  8. Get enough sleep. Trying to get by on four or five hours of sleep per night, or struggling through restless nights of interrupted sleep, can not only create physical problems but it can contribute to stress and depression. Click here for tips on sleep hygiene.
  9. —Larry Canale

Originally published in March 2016 and updated.

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Alison Palkhivala

Alison Palkhivala is an award-winning writer and journalist specializing in lifestyle, nutrition, health, and medicine. She has authored the Belvoir special report Overcoming Depression and the University Health News book … Read More

View all posts by Alison Palkhivala

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