What Is a Nervous Breakdown?

The term “nervous breakdown” is commonly used to refer to an inability to function normally; it’s often described as a feeling of being overwhelmed and/or unable to cope with life’s demands.

what is a nervous breakdown

While there is no formal medical definition for a nervous breakdown, the phrase is typically linked to such symptoms as mood swings, withdrawal from family and friends, and feelings of hopelessness or helplessness.

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We’ve all heard and used the phrase “nervous breakdown,” but it’s not an actual medical term, so there is no clinical definition. So what is a nervous breakdown? Generally, the phrase refers to some type of mental health crisis that renders a person incapable of normal, effective functioning. The person may feel like he just can’t handle things or can’t do the things he usually does.

Some people are unable to work or meet other responsibilities, such as caring for children or engaging in domestic duties such as shopping, cooking, and cleaning.

What Is a Nervous Breakdown… And What Does It Feel Like?

Since there’s no medical definition of a nervous breakdown, there’s no definitive list of symptoms. However, people who describe how they feel when having this type of mental health crisis often mention one of more of these symptoms:

  • A change in appetite and eating habits
  • A significant weight gain or weight loss
  • A change in sleep patterns (insomnia, inability to stay asleep, or sleeping for many hours but feeling fatigued or exhausted)
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Mood swings
  • Panic attacks (chest pain, difficulty breathing, racing heartbeat)
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations

Sometimes, a medical condition or substance abuse issue can further complicate the severity of a mental health crisis.

What Causes a Nervous Breakdown?

A mental health crisis is often brought on by extreme stress. What causes stress that is this damaging?

It may be the death of a loved one, loss of a job, divorce, or other traumatic life event. Sometimes, the person may have a medical condition, such as anxiety or depression, that becomes worse when a highly stressful event occurs.

Some people are able to regain their coping skills and come out of the crisis on their own, but anyone who experiences ongoing symptoms that interfere with his or her normal activities for more than a few days is advised to seek medical help.

Treatment Options

If a person having a nervous breakdown is diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety, antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed. If the person was already diagnosed with depression or anxiety prior to the crisis, his treatment plan needs to be reviewed and adjusted. Psychotherapy—which also may be called talk therapy, counseling, or cognitive behavioral therapy—involves meeting with a mental health professional and discussing your situation.

Psychotherapy usually includes instruction on how to cope with stress. Tools that help to reduce stress include relaxation techniques, guided imagery, breathing exercises, and/or meditation. Physical exercise is also an effective tact for anyone wanting to learn how to de-stress.

If you experience a nervous breakdown, the key is to seek help so that you can get the assistance you need to improve your mental health and return to your normal level of functioning.

For further reading, see these University Health News posts:

Originally published in May 2016 and updated.

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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Dawn Bialy

Dawn Bialy has been executive editor of Weill Cornell Medicine’s Women’s Health Advisor newsletter since 2007. Bialy also has served as managing editor for a variety of special health reports, … Read More

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