What is a mental breakdown? And what are the symptoms of a mental breakdown?

Category: Better Mood | Author and Publisher: Elly Prior | First published: 02-12-2010 | Modified: 09-05-2019

I want to be upfront with you...
I recommend only carefully chosen resources/products. If you buy something through one of the links, I may earn a commission at NO extra cost to you. Let me explain (opens in a new tab).

Print this article

If you suffer from the mental breakdown symptoms in this article you're most likely feel you just reached the limit of what you can endure. It feels like you're falling apart, with your emotions are all over the place.

Maybe life has just thrown too much at you, either repeated seemingly insurmountable problems or a major life event that changed your future forever.

Your resources - internal and/or external - are no longer enough to deal with all that's on your shoulders. You're constantly stressed and exhausted, your body flushed with stress hormones.

You may even find it difficult to concentrate on this page (bookmark it now!).

As a professional counsellor/therapist, I’ve seen more clients than I can mention who had a all the symptoms of a mental breakdown – particularly when I was practising in the workplace.

What you'll know by the end of this 2-part article about mental breakdown symptoms

You will know what happens when you have a mental breakdown:

a) How all that stress led to you feeling unable to cope
b) What a 'mental breakdown' exactly is
c) How to connect with an online professional therapist
d) What to do to get over it, with relaxation techniques and self-care tips
e) When to seek medical advice immediately (see Part 2)

What are the signs of a mental breakdown?

Here are some of the early signs mental breakdown.

Even before this crisis you're likely to have felt:

  • More tired than usual
  • Highly strung – everything just got on your nerves
  • Easily angered, suffering from mood swings
  • Guilty about becoming angry, particularly with your children and your partner or spouse
  • Everything was just ‘too much’
  • Increasingly worried about the future, money, work, security in general
  • sensations that seemed like the beginning of panic attacks
  • some signs of depression
  • lack of or low self esteem
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • racing thoughts
  • poor sleep
  • difficulty concentrating, lack of focus


  • Keen to avoid stuff you felt was stress-inducing, perhaps already beginning to feel you were 'cracking up' and were possibly having a mental breakdown
  • More focused on- or obsessed about- things you could control, e.g food intake, exercise, cleanliness, ‘rules’ at work and/or at home

Stress and anxiety build up. Periods of time that you felt completely overwhelmed happened more often. You were slowly getting physically and emotionally worn out, already showing symptoms of a nervous breakdown long before this crisis.

Signs and symptoms of a mental breakdown - physical, mental and behavioural

Do you recognise these nervous breakdown symptoms or signs of mental breakdown?

Maybe you've heard about someone "having a mental breakdown" and you've asked yourself: what is it?

So, let me explain...

First of all - the terms signs of a mental breakdown (sometimes call nervous breakdown) wouldn't normally be used in a professional setting.

A medical professional (and some mental health professionals) will talk about 'mental illness', anxiety disorder, stress disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I've used the term mental breakdown here because I know that thousands of people a month are searching for it. I want to be sure that I reach everyone who's looking for reliable information - hence the more colloquial language.

Let's have a look now at the symptoms - see how many of the following you recognise:

Mental breakdown symptoms

12 Common physical symptoms of a mental breakdown

Yes! because your body is flushed with stress hormones such as adrenaline, you're very likely to also have the following physical symptoms:

1. Irregular heartbeat
You can feel your heart pounding. Or maybe you're aware that your heart is beating really fast. You may be terrified that you're having or have had a heart attack.

2. Tensed and/or painful muscles
No wonder... they're working overtime without you being consciously aware of it. They're at the ready to help you run away from the (imagined) disaster, constantly in fight/flight mode.

3. Clammy hands and armpits
Your body works hard to cool you down. You're worried about having to shake hands and other people noticing how much you're sweating.

4. Dizziness and lightheadedness
Your blood is drawn to the major muscle groups to ensure they're well-fed and can deal with the (imagined) catastrophe.

5. Trembling or shaking
You may feel these are the most embarrassing symptoms - you're convinced other people will notice

6. Upset stomach and bowel problems
Your body/mind reacts as if your life's in danger. Digestion is secondary to survival - your body wants to get rid of whatever it doesn't immediately need. Diarrhoea, frequently needing to urinate and nausea or vomiting are normal under the circumstances. It's no surprise then that weightloss is a common symptom!

7. Exhaustion
All your energy is being used trying to manage or even just cope with this crisis - physically and mentally.

8. Unexplained aches, pains, cramps and illness
Your body/mind is out of balance. Existing health issues appear magnified. You may be convinced you're at death's door!

9. Coughs and colds
You seem to be catching every bug that's floating around. The prolonged extreme stress is undermining your immuun system.

10. Tension headaches
No wonder with tight muscles, constant worry, stress and anxiety. Mind and body out of balance - you're feeling poorly most of the time.

11. Unrelenting restlessness
You can't seem to sit still long enough to even draw a few long breaths. You're in a constant state of agitation, preventing you from getting a good night's sleep

12. Sensitive hearing
Normal sounds may feel too harsh, loud or shrill

Now you know a little more about what happens when you have a mental breakdown.

You can now perhaps also see that it's important that you have a medical checkup. Or, at the very least talk to a professional counsellor about your thoughts and feelings and mental breakdown symptoms.

More mental breakdown symptoms

1. Anxiety about everyday things
From the sound of the doorbell to going shopping or having to go to work - it's all too much.

2. Panic attacks and phobias
Periods of an out of control fear which, once passed, you may feel is totally 'irrational'.

3. Inability to cope with the most menial tasks
Stuff you wouldn't have thought twice about before are now a major challenge. You can't think straight, have difficulties organising yourself, can't 'lift a finger' and are frightened others will catch on.

4. Loss of libido
you feel 'dead below the waist'! This is often a much-ignored early sign as it's so often blamed on other things.

5. Impotence
...and a sense of shame about that to boot.

6. Sleep problems
From not being able to fall asleep to frequently waking up and not being able to go back to sleep due to racing thoughts, general restlessness, irregular heartbeat and constant worry. Your hormone system is completely out of balance.

7. Withdrawal from loved ones
It's as if you're living in a bubble - incapable of even following a conversation - a very common sign.

8. Irritability and angry outbursts
You have no spare capacity and can't meet your own essential needs, let alone even the most minor requests from others, including your children or partner.

9. Inability to concentrate
You seem unable even to read and comprehend the headlines. You're probably already exhausted from getting this far on my page!

10. Depression
This is almost a given when your life seems to be unravelling.

11. Excessive dreaming
Discover how dreaming is linked to mental health.

12. A memory like a sieve
The part of your brain that (partly) deals with memory is overburdened and burnt out resulting in memory loss.

Get help now. Click here to sign up for Better Help counselling online.

Remember, you'll recover! Given time, you'll function normally again, but it will be some months.

Overactive thyroid?

If in addition to the mental breakdown symptoms mentioned on this page you're also experiencing unexplained or unexpected weight-loss, you're needing to go to the toilet all too frequently and you're sensitive to heat, do yourself a favour - get yourself checked out by a doctor.

The most uncomfortable situations in life hold the greatest potential for growth. -Panache Desai

Other mental breakdown symptoms

Do you recognise the following signs of a mental breakdown?

  • And these symptoms are very similar for men and women.
  • It's difficult to divert your thoughts away from what's happening and how you're feeling - regardless of where you are and what you're doing
  • Relaxation techniques don't appear to bring relief
  • Even the most menial and normal demands on your time and energy now just feel too much to cope with
  • Ordinary family occasions can send you into complete overwhelm
  • You either want to run and hide, or you find yourself talking endlessly to people you trust about everything that's bothering you
  • You've little capacity to pay attention to anything, or listen to what other people are saying
  • You can’t handle hearing anything about other people's troubles, you can't cope with your own!
  • You're too tired and stressed to answer the phone, respond to messages, or even say or send a "thank you" - because explaining what's going on takes too much energy
  • You don't know what to do for the best… being at home makes you depressed, and being at work makes you stressed because you feel emotionally overwhelmed
  • You feel completely unable to respond to other people's expectations (real or imagined)

Signs of a mental breakdown

What about your emotional state?

7 Emotional signs of a mental breakdown

1. Excessive crying
You can cry seemingly endlessly, at the drop of a hat - whether you're male or female! You're just emotionally overwhelmed. No need to be embarrassed - I understand.

2. Feeling guilty for all kinds of reasons
For 'not pulling your weight', not being there for someone else, not being your 'normal' self, letting the side down, forgetting something important, etc.

3. Feeling desperately alone with it all
You're embarrassed and don't want to bother anyone. You're scared that no one would understand. Even when you do tell family and friends, you may not be convinced they really 'get it'.

4. Feeling no joy in anything at all
You're increasingly withdrawing from all the things you'd normally enjoy - because you can't cope, can't remember, can't think straight, worry that other would notice you're 'not right'.

5. Being/feeling paranoid
You may feel that people are out to get you and single you out for everything that's 'wrong' with you.

6. Feeling manic
Or laughing uncontrollably, feeling on top of the world and able to do or achieve anything you like (less common - needing urgent medical advice!).

7. Feeling suicidal
It may all feel too much to bear. You will need urgent medical attention!

You'll recover your emotional health too, even though you may feel a little fragile for some time to come. That's okay. You'll cope.

When life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface and breathe again”

Sheryl Sandber, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook

Concerned about someone else?

There are many nonverbal indicators of a person who is on the edge of a mental breakdown.

10 Warning signs of a person who may be on the verge of a breakdown

They may...

  1. have hunched-over shoulders
  2. look either quite 'blank' and in a trance or as if they’re being 'chased'
  3. be fidgety or restless
  4. cry easily (well ... that might just be very verbal!)
  5. become easily irritated and angry
  6. be 'jumpy'
  7. have stress 'written all over their face'
  8. display markedly changed body-language from what you would normally observe in them
  9. show weight loss or weight gain
  10. seem 'in trance' or 'not with it' much of the time

It's not surprising that often a nervous or mental breakdown goes hand-in-hand with signs of depression. Let's talk first in Part 2 about what other people might notice and when you need urgent medical advice.

Are you perhaps having an emotional breakdown?

You or someone else could be suffering from an emotional breakdown, rather than a nervous or mental breakdown.

If you've read all of the above, I imagine that by now you know what's up with you.

However, you could also be having an emotional breakdown without all of the stress and anxiety symptoms.

So what are the signs of an emotional breakdown?

Well, the symptoms of an emotional breakdown are much like those of a nervous- or mental breakdown: lots of crying, feeling shaky, trembling and nausea etc.

However, an emotional breakdown is more likely to be a reaction to some really bad news or the result of a bereavement, for example. It could even be that you've achieved something against all expectations - that you've fought and won! In case of the latter, someone else might think you're having an emotional breakdown, but although you may be emotional, you're most definitely not breaking down!

Of course, a mental breakdown can go hand-in-hand with an emotional breakdown.

Please, rate this article ...

I really hope this article is of help to you. :-)

I frequently update my articles based on feedback, therefore I really value your vote.

Thank you so much in anticipation. :-)

Part 1, Part 2

Would you like to talk to someone?

Your problem is never too small or too big, too silly, too embarrassing or too complicated to get personal advice (anonymous if you want) from a licensed therapist. They'll be happy to help.

  • Click the image below and fill in the 3 simple online questionnaires (it takes just a few minutes).
  • Choose how you want to pay (it's safe and secure).
  • Write down what's troubling you to start (chat, text, email, video-chat)...
Images courtesy of: Symphony of Love, DeeAshley, Ken Slade