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Nervous breakdown

8-minute read

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What is a nervous breakdown?

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 has an impact on a person’s daily life, they may be described as having a nervous breakdown.

A nervous breakdown, also known as a mental health crisis or mental breakdown, describes a period of intense mental distress. A person having a nervous breakdown is temporarily not able to function in their everyday life

‘Nervous breakdown’ is not a medical term or a mental health diagnosis, since it does not describe a specific condition. It’s a term that is sometimes used conversationally to describe someone who is obviously not coping with stress, worry or anxiety, or who is being overwhelmed by mental health issues.

Nowadays, doctors have better ways of diagnosing, describing and treating intense mental distress, and this can help to avoid stigma in mental health.

What are the symptoms of a nervous breakdown?

There are many different signs that indicate a person may be experiencing a nervous breakdown. It’s important to get professional help quickly after the symptoms appear.

Some signs relate to a person’s mental state and how they are feeling, or changes in personality. However, physical symptoms are also common. Signs vary from person to person, and can depend upon the underlying cause.

People who feel they are having a nervous breakdown can:

  • have anxiety that they can’t manage
  • feel isolated — disinterested in the company of family and friends, or withdrawing from usual daily activities
  • feel overwhelmed — unable to concentrate or make decisions
  • be moody — feeling low or depression; feeling burnt out; emotional outbursts of uncontrollable anger, fear, helplessness or crying
  • feel depersonalised — not feeling like themselves or feeling detached from situations
  • be delusionalnot be able to distinguish what’s real from what’s imagined
  • have hallucinations — vivid flashbacks of a stressful or traumatic event can be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder — you should discuss any hallucinations or flashbacks with a doctor or counsellor
  • feel paranoid — believing someone is watching or stalking you
  • have thoughts of self-harm — if you have thoughts of self-harm, get professional help immediately

Physical symptoms can include:

  • insomnia — when you have a lot on your mind it can be difficult to sleep, or sleep can be disrupted
  • exhaustion — difficulty sleeping or anxiety can make you feel exhausted and lacking the energy to face routine tasks
  • frequent illnesses — exhaustion can leave you susceptible to infections
  • muscle painsore and stiff muscles, particularly in the jaw, neck or back from muscle tension
  • bowel problems— stomach cramps and irregular bowel movements
  • racing heart— feeling like your heart is racing, tightness across the chest or a lump in your throat, which can make it seem difficult to breathe (a panic attack)
  • sweats — hot or cold flushes and clammy hands

People who are experiencing a nervous breakdown may avoid social functions, call in sick for work and isolate themselves at home. They may not be eating or sleeping properly, and they may not look after their personal hygiene.

If you are concerned that you or a loved one is experiencing a nervous breakdown, it is important to seek help and to see a doctor or counsellor.

Untreated mental illness can lead to longer lasting mental health problems, as well as social and physical problems.

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

What causes a nervous breakdown?

Underlying mental health conditions often play a role, but a nervous breakdown can be triggered by a specific event that causes someone extreme stress.

The underlying mental health conditions may be depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Life stressors, such as divorce or trauma, may add to the situation and be the trigger for the breakdown.

If a person has poor coping skills to start with or a lack of social support, their resilience (the ability to cope during periods of adversity) will be lower

A nervous breakdown can also be the product of a gradual build-up of stress, commonly arising from pressures related to work, relationships or financial difficulties — divorce or unemployment may be factors.

Worry, stress and anxiety can build up over a long period of time and 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 and it has some similar signs and symptoms to a nervous breakdown.

Your doctor can prescribe medicines for many mental health conditions, and refer you to other healthcare professionals, such as psychologists or psychiatrists.

They can help get you a mental health treatment plan — to access Medicare rebates for sessions with mental health professionals.

What to do if you are in a mental health crisis

If you, or someone else, is having an immediate crisis — a mental health emergency — get help from the below:

  • Lifeline (anyone having a personal crisis) — call 13 11 14 or chat online
  • Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) — call 1300 659 467
  • call triple zero (000)
  • visit the Emergency Department at your closest hospital

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

How is a nervous breakdown treated?

Following a nervous breakdown treatment may include medicines and therapy, depending on the situation, the diagnosis, and the person’s wishes.

Medicines may help treat an underlying mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.

Therapy may include counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a type of talking therapy that aims to break the habit of negative thinking.

Simple lifestyle changes can help deal with stress and anxiety. Working on your diet, exercise and sleep habits can help.

A healthy diet can improve energy levels, sleep habits and help to combat illness, and prevent you feeling low and tired. You might also remove stimulants from your diet, such as caffeine — this can help reduce anxiety and improve sleep.

Drugs and alcohol are best avoided as a coping strategy, as they can make mental health problems worse or lead to addiction.

Exercise can help many forms of temporary and long-term mental illness. Exercise can be used as a way to do something for yourself and can provide ’time-out’ from other pressures. Team sports or activities encourage socialising, which can reduce feelings of isolation, give your mood a boost and increase self-esteem. Physical fatigue may also improve sleep, which is essential to give you the energy to cope with day-to-day activities.

Learning relaxation , such as meditation or breathing exercises, might also help and can be practised when you feel your stress levels rising.

Can a nervous breakdown be prevented?

The lifestyle measures listed in the treatment section above will all help to prevent mental illness as well as help in recovery.

In addition, resilience can help you to bounce back from stressful experiences, and help to protect you from mental health conditions. Find out how to build resilience.

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 take action and ask for help before reaching breaking point.

Recovery from a nervous breakdown

Some people who have recovered from a nervous breakdown say it forced them to address their issues, get help and develop better coping skills. It meant they were diagnosed and started treatment for mental illness that was not being treated.

Some restructured their lives and jobs to make them less stressful, and started therapy.

People who have had treatment and therapy after a nervous breakdown often emerge more resilient and better able to cope with life than they were before.

Resources and support

If you need help, talking to your doctor is a good place to start. If you feel uncomfortable about this, here are some tips for talking to your doctor about mental health.

If you’d like to find out more or talk to someone else, here are some organisations that can help:

  • For general mental health support and information: SANE Australia (people living with a mental illness) — call 1800 18 7263
  • Beyond Blue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) — call 1300 22 4636 or chat online
  • Black Dog Institute (people affected by mood disorders) — online help
  • ReachOut.com (courses and resources on wellbeing and resilience)
  • This Way Up Clinic (anyone with stress, anxiety and depression) — online courses
  • MindSpot Clinic (people with anxiety and depression) — call 1800 61 44 34 or complete an online screening assessment
  • Relationships Australia (relationship support services) — call 1300 364 277
  • MensLine Australia (telephone and online counselling) — call 1300 78 99 78

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

Last reviewed: November 2021


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