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Nervous breakdown

9-minute read

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Key facts

  • A nervous breakdown is when stress and anxiety become too much and affect your daily life.
  • A nervous breakdown can be a sign of a mental health problem that needs attention.
  • If you are having a nervous breakdown you will not be able to function as normal.
  • You should seek help if you have mental health symptoms that are negatively affecting your daily life or you feel you are not coping.

What is a nervous breakdown?

A nervous breakdown is also known as a mental health crisis. It describes a stressful time in someone's life when it becomes physically and emotionally overwhelming.

Everybody experiences stress and anxiety when they feel under pressure, though usually at levels that are manageable. When stress and feelings of worry or anxiety are there all the time, and build up to a level that affects a person's daily life, they may describe this as having a nervous breakdown.

Nervous breakdown is not a medical term. However, it may be used to describe someone who is not coping with stress or mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

What are the symptoms of a nervous breakdown?

Symptoms of a nervous breakdown may relate to a person's mental state and how they are feeling or changes in personality. Physical symptoms are also common.

The symptoms vary from person to person and may depend upon the underlying cause.

If you feel you are having a nervous breakdown you may:

  • have anxiety or depression that you can't manage
  • withdraw from your usual daily activities, miss appointments or social activities
  • feel hopeless or helpless
  • neglect your personal hygiene
  • feel angry or irritable
  • have delusions or hallucinations
  • feel paranoid, nervous or scared

Physical symptoms can include:

People who are experiencing a nervous breakdown generally can't function as usual. They may have thoughts of self-harm.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes a nervous breakdown?

A nervous breakdown can be caused by a single event that causes someone extreme stress, but unmanaged mental health conditions often play a role.

Underlying health conditions may include depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Life stressors such as divorce or trauma may add to the situation and cause a breakdown.

Other factors that may affect mental health and cause a nervous breakdown are:

  • lack of social support
  • slow build-up of stress
  • homelessness and unemployment
  • work, relationships or financial problems
  • lack of coping skills and resilience

Worry, stress and anxiety can build up over a long period of time. They can reach a point where a person is no longer able to cope or perform their normal daily tasks.

Burnout is when a person reaches a state of total mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. It has some similar signs and symptoms to a nervous breakdown.

When should I see my doctor?

If you are concerned that you or a loved one is struggling, it is important to seek help. You should see a doctor or psychologist.

Untreated mental illness can lead to longer lasting mental health problems, as well as social and physical challenges. It's important to get professional help if your symptoms are:

  • constant
  • last more than 2 weeks
  • negatively affecting your daily life

Your doctor can help you build a mental health treatment plan. They can prescribe medicines for many mental health conditions and refer you to other healthcare professionals such as psychologists or psychiatrists.

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger of hurting themselves or others, call triple zero (000).

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is a nervous breakdown treated?

Treatment for a nervous breakdown depends on the underlying issue and cause. Following a nervous breakdown, treatment may include:

  • medicines — that may help treat an underlying mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.
  • psychotherapy — such as or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • community support programs

Can a nervous breakdown be prevented?

Learning how to cope with stress and anxiety can help improve your daily life and prevent a nervous breakdown. Here are some tips to help manage stress and anxiety:

  • Follow a healthy diet — to improve energy levels
  • Avoid soft drinks or caffeine — to help reduce anxiety and improve sleep
  • Exercise — Team sports or activities encourage social interactions which can reduce feelings of isolation, give your mood a boost and increase self-esteem
  • Practise good sleep habits — Stick to a routine and make sure you get enough sleep
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol as a coping strategy — They can make mental health problems worse or lead to addiction.
  • Learn relaxation techniques such as meditation or breathing exercises — They may help reduce stress and can be practised when you feel your stress levels rising.
  • Build resilience — It can help you to bounce back from stressful experiences and help to protect you from mental health conditions.
  • Get to know the signs that indicate you are struggling to cope —If you can recognise the signs of a nervous breakdown then you can ask for help before reaching breaking point.

What does recovery look like after a nervous breakdown?

Recovery following a nervous breakdown is different for everybody. It's not always clear how long it may take to recover. Everyone has different stressors and coping ability. If the cause of your nervous breakdown has been diagnosed and you receive treatment, your symptoms should improve within 6 months.

It is important to maintain good mental health and seek help when you need it.

Resources and support

If you'd like to find out more or talk to someone about how you are feeling there are many organisations that can help:

Do you prefer to read in languages other than English?

  • SANE offers a range of support services including a free translating and interpreting service available on 131 450.
  • Transcultural Mental Health Centre has many resources about wellbeing and mental health in different languages.
  • Beyond Blue has translated mental health resources.

Looking for information for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people?

  • Yarn Safe has mental health and wellbeing information for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.
  • Wellmob has more mental health information and resources Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2024

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