What is a nervous breakdown and should we be concerned?

What do you think of when you hear the words 'nervous breakdown'? Do you recognise the phrase but are unsure of its exact meaning? An exaggeration? Something to fear? An outdated or old-fashioned expression? An urban myth?


Perhaps now less commonly used than 'mental health crisis' or 'mental breakdown', the name 'nervous breakdown' is more like an umbrella term instead of having a specific definition, and is not an official diagnosis or medical condition. It refers to a mental health catastrophe whereby for a certain time you cannot function in life as 'normal' and can be likened to the feeling of 'hitting rock bottom'. Everyday demands of tasks, activities and needs can become too emotionally and physically overwhelming and stressful, to the point of being debilitating and negatively impacting on life.

Interestingly the 'nervous' part of the term roots back to a time when it was considered the body's nervous system had some responsibility for mental health problems - and the continuing hope that was some type of straightforward physical cure.

Meanwhile the term 'burnout' is meant to be specifically for occupation-related stress, and a 'flare' is related to exacerbation of an existing mental health condition (e.g. schizophrenia or depression).

The symptoms of a nervous breakdown

Symptoms can vary from person to person (and culture to culture), as well as the intensity and duration. The overarching theme of a nervous breakdown is that a person cannot continue everyday life as 'usual'.

Symptoms might last for days, weeks or months, and might include some or all of these:

  • isolation and withdrawal
  • panic attacks 
  • insomnia
  • lack of self-care
  • mood swings
  • lack of focus
  • lack of interest in relationships or activities 
  • aches, pains, tension, nausea 
  • dissociation (sense of being 'out of reality')
  • paranoia 
  • sense of doom, hopelessness or helplessness

A nervous breakdown can sometimes also be a variety of mental health conditions coming to a head at the same time (e.g. you might be depressed, suffering with insomnia, struggling with increasing anxieties, and hit by a stressful situation). Or it can also be masking another mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder, PTSD, or schizophrenia.

Therefore, it is vital to seek support if you think you might be having a nervous breakdown to detangle and clarify what is going on for you so that the most appropriate treatment can be found.

Causes of a nervous breakdown

So a nervous breakdown is clearly something to be taken seriously. But what are the causes or triggers?

There is no one specific cause for having a nervous breakdown, it is more likely to be a build-up or series of stressful life events that leads to the breakdown leaving you feeling extremely vulnerable. Examples might be, trauma, workplace stress, challenging relationships, grief and loss, bankruptcy, divorce, being the victim of attack/accident, natural disaster, long-term illness, job loss, life stage changes (e.g. menopause or childbirth), etc. It can be multilayered and complex, and unique to the individual, which can require time and safety to fully comprehend.

Getting help

Recovery from a nervous breakdown and a return to your daily routine and life is completely possible. However, it can take time (which will also vary between individuals) and the support from those around you as well as professionals can determine the success of this. 

Some suggestions that might be helpful:

  1. Know the warning signs and symptoms of a mental health crisis (and how that looks for yourself or those around you).
  2. Reach out to a professional, such as GP, therapist, or counsellor. Medication might also be a helpful interim treatment. 
  3. Have an awareness of support websites and phone numbers to seek additional help or if in crisis or emergency. 
  4. Build in self-care routines that work for you, such as journaling, mindfulness, relaxation activities, and spending time in nature. 
  5. Create a safe and accepting place for yourself and for your loved ones. A breakdown is not because you are 'wrong' or 'strange' - everyone has breaking points and it's the situation that has led to this moment.

After a nervous breakdown, sometimes it is reported individuals feel they have a greater awareness and understanding of themselves. An increase in compassion and self-worth can also be felt, whilst having a sense of renewal and purpose. A nervous breakdown is not the end. With time, understanding and support, recovery and return to you and your life is fully accessible and achievable. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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St. Austell PL26 & Bodmin PL30
Written by Ysella Wood, Member of BACP ~ Dip.Couns ~ Golowhe Therapy
St. Austell PL26 & Bodmin PL30

Ysella (also known as Izzey) is a counsellor and ecotherapist located in mid-Cornwall. She has a private practice called Golowhe Therapy working with individuals (young people, teens, adults) and groups, and offers the use of nature and the outdoors to support the therapeutic relationship, such as through ecotherapy and ‘walk and talk’ sessions.

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