Common signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown
Author: Elly Prior | First published: 24-09-2010 | Modified: 21-11-2017
Physical symptoms | Mental symptoms | Emotional problems | Other signs | Get professional help now
... what they mean, what to do about it and when you need urgent medical attention
The signs and symptoms of your nervous breakdown are an indication that you've reached your limit. You may feel like you're falling apart, but I promise you - you're not going mad!
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 (tip: bookmark it now!).
As a professional counsellor/psychotherapist, I’ve seen more clients than I can mention who had a breakdown – particularly when I was practising in the workplace. So, I hope to help you make sense of what's happening to you, or someone you care about - your partner, perhaps. I'm including this article in my relationship advice site because all too often relationship problems are part and parcel of a breakdown.
I'm aiming above all to reassure you... You're not really 'broken'. Your body/mind is primed to heal itself. And you’ve made a great start by finding this page!
So, read on to learn more and increase your understanding of what's happening to you...
What you need to know right away is that there's no shame in feeling like a cry-baby, or like you're weak and completely out of control. You may feel like you're going crazy right now, but you will recover. The symptoms of this burnout will disappear and you'll be able to cope with life's trials and tribulation again. But - it won't happen overnight.
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 moodswings
- 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
- Keen to avoid stuff you felt was stress-inducing
- More focused on- or obsessed about- things you could control, e.g food intake, exercise, cleanliness, ‘rules’ at work and/or at home
With the build-up of stress and anxiety, periods of time that you felt completely overwhelmed, increasingly unable to cope, there were clearly warning signs you were headed for a burn-out. You were slowly getting physically and emotionally worn out, already showing symptoms of a nervous breakdown long before now.
A nervous breakdown is so much worse than being uncomfortable! However, you have no choice but the make changes, and yes - it absolutely offers the hope and potential for growth. Even though it may take you some time to realise that
Do you recognise these symptoms of a nervous breakdown?
Maybe you've heard about someone "having a nervous breakdown" and you've asked yourself: what is it? So, let me explain...
First of all - the terms I've used so far to describe what you're going through wouldn't normally be used in a professional setting. A medical professional in the Mayo Clinics (and some mental health professionals) will talk about 'mental illness', anxiety disorder, stress disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I've used terms like "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.
You may suspect that you are - or someone you love is - suffering from shattered nerves (another description) and you don't know what to think or do.
This kind of anxiety disorder (don't let that word worry you either) may have slowly built up over time. Or you might have suddenly been caught out unexpectedly (though it would have been lurking for some time and I suspect you know that!).
See how many of these symptoms you recognise in yourself (or your loved-one) and these come, of course, on top of any other health issues you may have:
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 weightloss 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 immuun 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
- Sensitive hearing
Normal sounds may feel too harsh, loud or shrill
It's important that you have a medical checkup! Or, at the very least talk to a mental health professional about your thoughts and feelings and nervous breakdown symptoms.
Oh, and let me repeat again - you'll recover! Your coping mechanism will be restored again. You're going to be okay. It's just going to take some time.
12 Mental symptoms that make you think you're going mad
- Anxiety about everyday things
From the sound of the doorbell to going shopping or having to go to work - it's all too much.
- Panic attacks and phobias
Periods of an out of control fear which, once passed, you may feel is totally 'irrational'
- 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
- 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
...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.
- Withdrawal from loved ones
It's as if you're living in a bubble - incapable of even following a conversation - a very common sign
- 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
- 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!
This is almost a given when your life seems to be unravelling
- 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'll recover! Given time, you'll function normally again.
If in addition to the 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.
Is everything getting on your nerves? You are not alone!
Other signs of a nervous breakdown you may recognise
- It's difficult to divert your thoughts away from what's happening - regardless of where you are and what you're doing
- You're constantly aware that 'you're just not feeling right' and 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 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 feel 'wrung out' and miserable much of the time, if only you could get a good night's sleep
- 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
No wonder you're finding it hard to cope!
In Part 2 of this article is stuff you must also know including when it becomes essential to get the advice of a medical professional.
If you're keen to find out right now how to get over a nervous breakdown, consider talking to a qualified counsellor now.
"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!"
Before you read the emotional symptoms, know that...
... there's help available
See my article How to get over a nervous breakdown and also have a look at the free, and paid, resources of Dr Kelly Brogan⧉...
What about your emotional state?
8 Emotional problems common in a mental breakdown
- 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.
- 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 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 - needing urgent medical advice!).
- Feeling suicidal
It may all feel too much to bear. You will need urgent medical attention!
- Feeling angry all the time
It would be so easy for you to just 'snap'. You're ratty with just about everybody. It's easy to have a major row about the smallest thing
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 nervous breakdown.
10 Warning signs of a person who may be on the verge of a 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
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.
Remember though - you will recover! This is a temporary 'mental illness'. And you may even be happy with the weight-loss. :-)
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