What causes a nervous breakdown?
If you suffer from nervous breakdown symptoms, I’m really sorry to say it’s very likely to be an indication that you’ve reached your limit – you’ve had enough, you’re at the end of your tether. You feel like you’re falling apart.
Maybe life or work has just thrown too much at you. You may have been bravely facing 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. And these symptoms are very similar for men and women.
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 all the symptoms of a nervous breakdown – particularly when I was practising in the workplace.
Fear of going crazy?
Let me reassure you right away: your emotions may well be all over the place, but you’re not losing your mind or going crazy or mad.
What you’ll know by the end of this series of articles about a nervous breakdown
a) What a nervous breakdown feels like
b) What a nervous breakdown exactly is
c) How to connect with an online professional therapist
d) What to do to get over it, including relaxation techniques and self-care tips
e) How long it takes to get over a breakdown
f) When to seek medical advice immediately.
See also: FAQ about a nervous breakdown
What is a nervous breakdown?
First of all – the term signs of nervous breakdown symptoms 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 nervous 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.
A nervous breakdown is a state of severe mental distress with a combination of mental, emotional and physical symptoms associated with anxiety, panic attacks and depression.
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What does it feel like to be close to a nervous breakdown?
Let’s start with what is happening when you experience the early signs of a nervous breakdown.
For some time prior to this breakdown, you may well 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
- niggling fears – worries about the future, money, work, security in general
- somewhat panicky
- signs of depression (see also: Symptoms of depression in men)
- low in self-esteem
- quickly overwhelmed
- your thoughts were racing
- worn out because of poor sleep
- unable to concentrate
- keen to avoid stress-inducing activities
- focused on- or obsessed about things you could control, e.g food intake, exercise, cleanliness, rules at work and/or at home.
Let’s have a look now at the symptoms – see how many of the following you recognise…
What happens when you have a nervous breakdown
How do you know you’re having a nervous breakdown?
What are the physical symptoms?
12 Common physical nervous breakdown symptoms
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Trembling or shaking
You may feel these are the most embarrassing symptoms – you’re convinced other people will notice.
- 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 weight loss is a common symptom!
All your energy is being used trying to manage or even just cope with this crisis – physically and mentally.
- 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.
- Coughs and colds
You seem to be catching every bug that’s floating around. The prolonged extreme stress is undermining your immune system.
- 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.
- 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. This is one of the most telling signs of a nervous breakdown!
- Sensitive hearing
Normal sounds may feel too harsh, loud or shrill
How to tell you’re having a nervous breakdown
One of the most telling signs of a nervous breakdown is a combination of racing thoughts and unrelenting restlessness. You can’t sit still, constantly feeling agitated, confused and overwhelmed.
Now you know a little more about what happens when you have a nervous breakdown, hopefully, you can 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 symptoms.
What are the symptoms of a nervous breakdown?
12 nervous breakdown symptoms
- Anxiety about everyday things
From the sound of the doorbell to going shopping or having to go to work – it’s all too much. It would be no wonder if you’ve had a breakdown at work.
- Panic attacks and phobias
Periods of an out of control fear which, once passed, you may feel is totally irrational. See my article on how to stop a panic attack.
- Inability to cope with the most menial tasks
Even the most menial and normal demands on your time and energy now just feel too much to cope with. Things you wouldn’t have thought twice about before are now major challenges. You can’t think straight, have difficulty organising yourself, and are frightened others will find you out.
- 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. See my articles on low male libido and low female libido.
…and a sense of shame about that to boot.
- 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. See my article The best natural sleep remedies.
- Withdrawal from loved ones
It’s as if you’re living in a bubble, incapable of even following a conversation – a very common sign. Ordinary family occasions can send you into complete overwhelm.
- 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. (See also my article on anger management tips.)
- 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. You’ve little capacity to pay attention to anything or listen to what other people are saying. And you can’t handle hearing anything about other people’s troubles… you’re struggling enough with your own. 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.
This is almost a given when your life seems to be unravelling. 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). See my articles on treating depression without or with drugs and The symptoms of depression in men.
- Excessive dreaming
Discover how dreaming is linked to mental health.
- A memory like a sieve
The part of your brain that (partly) deals with memory is overburdened and burnt out resulting in memory loss.
Remember, you can recover. Given time, you’ll be able to function normally again, but it will take some time.
Overactive thyroid causing your breakdown?
In addition to the symptoms mentioned on this page, if 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.
“Elly, thank you so much for the generous amount of information, and for writing in such a compassionate, to-the-point way. I feel like I know more about what’s going on, I’ve identified some causes which helped me make sense of it all, and I think I know what steps I need to take to learn and grow from all I’m experiencing right now. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and kindness!”Katie
What does a breakdown feel like?
7 emotional signs of a nervous breakdown
- Crying ‘for no reason’
You can cry at the drop of a hat often ‘for no reason’ – whether you’re male or female. You’re just emotionally overwhelmed.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 people would notice you’re not right.
- Being/feeling paranoid
You may feel that people are out to get you and single you out for everything that’s ‘wrong’ with you.
- Feeling manic
Or laughing uncontrollably, feeling on top of the world and able to do or achieve anything you like (less common and needs urgent medical advice).
- Feeling suicidal
It may all feel too much to bear. If you feel suicidal, you need to seek urgent medical attention.
I want to reassure you right now: you can recover your emotional health too, even though you may feel a little fragile for some time to come.
“When life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface and breathe again”SHERYL SANDBERG, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER AT FACEBOOK
What else happens during a breakdown?
Don’t be alarmed if you…
… are terrified of the doorbell
… don’t want to open the post anymore
… can’t get out of the front door
… can’t stand in a queue
… can’t even get anywhere near to your place of work
… suddenly have found yourself somewhere, without a clue why you’re there or what you were meant to do – and feeling terrified
I know all of the above is scary, but it is all part of this condition.
I promise you, you will get better and do all those things again in time without that terror.
What are the signs of a nervous breakdown
Concerned for someone on the verge of a breakdown?
There are many nonverbal indicators of a person who is on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
10 signs of a nervous breakdown
- have hunched-over shoulders,
- look either quite blank and in a trance or as if they’re being chased,
- be fidgety or restless,
- cry easily (well … that might just be very verbal!),
- become easily irritated and angry,
- be jumpy,
- have stress written all over their face’
- display markedly changed body-language from what you would normally observe in them,
- show weight loss or weight gain,
- seem in trance or not with it much of the time.
Are you having an emotional breakdown?
You or someone else could be suffering from an emotional breakdown, rather than a nervous 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.
What are the signs of an emotional breakdown?
Well, the symptoms of an emotional breakdown are much like those of a nervous 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 nervous breakdown can go hand-in-hand with an emotional breakdown. And, indeed it can be a symptom of a nervous breakdown.
Other helpful links
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How long it takes to recover from a nervous breakdown
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How to help your partner recover from a nervous breakdown
Your partner's burnout or mental breakdown affects you too. Discover the 10 things you can do to help them, the 10 things you'd better not do and the 6 things you absolutely need...
How to stop an anxiety attack (panic attack) in its tracks
Get all your questions about panic- or anxiety attacks answered. Why they happen, if you can pass out or even die from them and most of all how to stop them from happening.
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