Mental breakdown

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Mental breakdown (also known as a nervous breakdown) is a colloquial term for an acute, time-limited psychiatric disorder that manifests primarily as severe stress-induced depression, anxiety or dissociation in a previously functional individual, to the extent that they are no longer able to function on a day-to-day basis until the disorder is resolved. A mental breakdown is defined by its temporary nature, and often closely tied to psychological burnout, severe overwork, sleep deprivation and similar stressors, which combine to temporarily overwhelm an individual with otherwise sound mental faculties. A mental breakdown also shares many symptoms with the acute phase of post-traumatic stress disorder. [1] A major cause of a mental breakdown can be stress and a breakdown is usually a symptom of underlying causes like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. [2] Medication and therapy are usually used to help someone recover from a mental breakdown.[3] The UK Mental Health Foundation found that one in every 20 people is likely to have suffered from depression, including a nervous breakdown.[4]


The terms "nervous breakdown" and "mental breakdown" have not been formally defined through a medical diagnostic system such as the DSM-IV or ICD-10, and are nearly absent from current scientific literature regarding mental illness.[5][6] Although "nervous breakdown" does not necessarily have a rigorous or static definition, surveys of laypersons suggest that the term refers to a specific acute time-limited reactive disorder, involving symptoms such as anxiety or depression, usually precipitated by external stressors.[5] Many health experts today refer to a nervous breakdown as a “modern mental health crisis.” [7]

Specific cases are sometimes described as a "breakdown" only after a person becomes unable to function in day-to-day life. [8] There comes a point when people just cannot handle life anymore and it becomes emotionally and physically draining. [6]

Also, many times serious mental health disorders can be underlying problems in addition to a nervous breakdown.[6]


In How Everyone Became Depressed: The Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown (2013), Edward Shorter, a professor of psychiatry and the history of medicine, argues for a return to the old-fashioned concept of nervous illness:

Take the women that you know. About half of them are depressed. Or at least that is the diagnosis that they got when they were put on antidepressants. ... They go to work but they are unhappy and uncomfortable; they are somewhat anxious; they are tired; they have various physical pains – and they tend to obsess about the whole business. There is a term for what they have, and it is a good old-fashioned term that has gone out of use. They have nerves or a nervous illness. It is an illness not just of mind or brain, but a disorder of the entire body. ... We have a package here of five symptoms–mild depression, some anxiety, fatigue, somatic pains, and obsessive thinking. ... We have had nervous illness for centuries. When you are too nervous to function ... it is a nervous breakdown. But that term has vanished from medicine, although not from the way we speak. ... The nervous patients of yesteryear are the depressives of today. That is the bad news. ... There is a deeper illness that drives depression and the symptoms of mood. We can call this deeper illness something else, or invent a neologism, but we need to get the discussion off depression and onto this deeper disorder in the brain and body. That is the point.

—Edward Shorter, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto.[9]

"In eliminating the nervous breakdown, psychiatry has come close to having its own nervous breakdown."

David Healy, MD, FRCPsych, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Cardiff, Wales.[10]

"Nerves stand at the core of common mental illness, no matter how much we try to forget them."

—Peter J. Tyrer, FMedSci, Professor of Community Psychiatry, Imperial College, London[11]


Causes of such breakdowns are varied. A 1996 study found that problems with intimate relationships, such as divorce or marital separation, contributed to 24% of nervous breakdowns.[12] Problems at work and school accounted for 17% of cases, and financial problems for 11%. Surveys suggest that in the United States, health problems have decreased in importance as a contributor to nervous breakdowns. Health problems accounted for 28% of nervous breakdowns in 1957, 12% in 1976, and only 5.6% in 1996.[12]

A nervous breakdown is very similar to an anxiety attack. Stress is a major cause in both cases and they are both temporary. During a nervous breakdown, a person feels the need to just let all his/her feelings go and then the feelings take over the body. Feelings like worry, nervousness, fear, anxiety, and stress are all causes. Also, studies show that there is a chemical imbalance in the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain. The neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay messages back and forth from the body and brain. A nervous breakdown is not limited to any one type of person. Anyone can have this breakdown, but if someone is under a lot of stress and has a family background of mental disorders, they can be more likely to have one. [13]


One major symptom of a mental breakdown is depression. When someone is depressed they may experience weight gain, suicidal thoughts, or loss of interest in social, family, or work life. Another symptom of a breakdown is anxiety, which can produce an increase in blood pressure, dizziness, trembling, or feeling sick to the stomach. Panic attacks are very similar to mental breakdowns but can also be a symptom in some cases. Having a hard time breathing and extreme fear may occur in those who are experiencing a panic attack. In more severe cases, someone may experience mood swings, hallucinations, paranoia, and flashbacks. In each of these more severe cases there can be a more serious underlying problem that caused the mental breakdown. Hallucinations may suggest schizophrenia, mood swings may suggest bipolar disorder, and flashbacks may suggest posttraumatic stress disorder. The severity of each of these disorders and symptoms may vary based upon the person and his/her background.[14]


The medication that may be prescribed to someone who has a mental breakdown is based upon the underlying causes, which are usually more serious mental disorders. Anti-depressants are given to treat depression. Anxiolytics are used for those with anxiety disorders and these types of drugs can be very addictive. Anti-psychotics are used for Schizophrenia and mood stabilizers help with Bipolar Disorder. Depending on what caused a person’s mental breakdown, any of these treatments can be helpful to him/her.[15]

There are several different kinds of therapy a patient can receive. The most common type of therapy is counseling. This is basically just where the patient is able to talk about whatever is on their mind without worrying about any judgments. Psychotherapy is a very common type of therapy that addresses the current problems in someone’s life and helps him/her to deal with them. Past experiences may also be explored in this type of therapy. In Psychoanalysis therapy, the main focus is a patient’s past experiences so that he/she can confront these issues and prevent breakdowns in the future. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy explores how a person behaves and what they are thinking and feeling. If there is anything negative in these three different categories, then this therapy will try to turn them around into positives. Hypnotherapy is where hypnosis is performed and used to help the patient to relax.Hypnosis can also be used to figure out why a person acts or feels a certain way by examining past events that may have caused the breakdown. Expressive therapy focuses on how the patient is able to express his/her feelings. If the patient has a hard time doing this, expression through the arts is highly recommended. There is also Aromatherapy, which consists of herbs to help the patient relax and to try and relieve stress. Yoga and massage may also be included in this therapy that will help the muscles to relax. All of these therapies help a person to relax and de-stress and also help to prevent future breakdowns.[16]

A nervous breakdown is temporary and one way to recover without medication or therapy is just to simply relax and calm down. Taking deep breaths and not focusing on what has caused the breakdown is a common way for a person to de-stress.[17]

Similar disorders[edit]

Rapport, Todd, Lumley, and Fisicaro suggest that the closest DSM-IV diagnostic category to nervous breakdown is Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Anxiety and Depressed Mood (Acute).[5] Adjustment disorders and nervous breakdowns are both acute reactions to stress that resolve after removal of the stressor. However, DSM-IV excludes from adjustment disorders cases secondary to bereavement, which contributes to approximately 6–8% of nervous breakdowns.[5]

Nervous breakdowns may share some features of acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, in that these each occur in response to an external stressor, and may be marked with sleep disturbance, diminished concentration, and mood lability. However, the symptoms of nervous breakdown do not include the constellation of re-experienced trauma, dissociation, avoidance, and numbing of general responsiveness that are associated with the other two disorders, and the types of stressors linked to a nervous breakdown are generally less extreme.[5]

Nervous breakdowns may share many features of mixed anxiety-depressive disorder (MADD). However, the definition of MADD suggests a chronic condition, in contrast to the acute, short-term nature of a nervous breakdown.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "What is a Nervous Breakdown?". Native Remedies. 
  2. ^ Mayo Clinic Retrieved 3/11/15.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. ^ Tools For Life Retrieved 3/11/15.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ "Breakdown or Breakthrough?". Natural Recovery Plan. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Rapport, L. J.; Todd, R. M.; Lumley, M. A.; Fisicaro, S. A. (1998). "The diagnostic meaning of 'nervous breakdown' among lay populations". J Pers Assess 71 (2): 242–252. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa7102_11. 
  6. ^ a b c Mayo Clinic Mental Breakdown
  7. ^ SymptomFind Signs and Symptoms of Nervous Breakdown
  8. ^ Hallowell, Edward M & John Ratey. 2005. Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-44231-8
  9. ^ Edward Shorter (2013) How Everyone Became Depressed: The Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown, Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-994808-6
  10. ^ David Healy (2013) Pharmageddon, University of California Press ISBN 978-0520275768
  11. ^ Peter Tyrer (2013) Models for Mental Disorder, Wiley-Blackwell ISBN 978-1118540527
  12. ^ a b Swindle, R., Jr.; Heller, K.; Pescosolido, B.; Kikuzawa, S. (2000). "Responses to nervous breakdowns in America over a 40-year period. Mental health policy implications". Am Psychol. 55 (7): 740–749. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.7.740. PMID 10916863. 
  13. ^ "What is a Nervous Breakdown?". Health Grades. 
  14. ^ "Signs and Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown". Symptom Find. 
  15. ^ "Nervous Breakdown: Treatment and Medication". 
  16. ^ "Nervous Breakdown: Treatment and Medication". 
  17. ^ "Signs and Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown". Symptom Find.