“Help! I’m having a nervous breakdown!!”
We’ve probably all have heard these words at least one point in our lives. But what does it mean?
As we noted last year, a nervous breakdown is just a general, layperson’s term for a bout of mental illness. But Benedict Carey over at The New York Times examines the history of this phrase, as new phrases have entered the popular vocabulary trying to takes its place. These new phrases include “burnout syndrome” (or just plain “burnout”) and “vital exhaustion.” I don’t think any of these will catch on than the all-inclusive “nervous breakdown,” though, because of its longevity and history (since 1900!).
What gives the “nervous breakdown” phrase such power?
Well, one line of thought is that because it is imprecise and non-specific, it can be used in almost any situation to describe someone’s reduced mental state or grappling with an emotional health issue:
But that same imprecision allowed the speaker, not medical professionals, to control its meaning. People might be on the verge of, or close to, a nervous breakdown; and it was common enough to have had “something like” a nervous breakdown, or a mild one. The phrase allowed a person to disclose as much, or as little, detail about a “crackup” as he or she saw fit. Vagueness preserves privacy.
Dr. Shorter said that the term “nervous” has traditionally been a “weasel word” for mental troubles, implying that the cause was something physical beyond the person’s control — their damaged nerves, not their mind. And a breakdown, after all, is something that happens to cars. It’s a temporary problem; or at least, not necessarily chronic.
I find language often fascinating, especially how old terms are redefined by big companies seeking to make a buck off of us (such as Facebook’s redefinition of the word “friend”). I suspect “nervous breakdown” will still be with us a century from now, because it’s lack of specificity is what gives it such flexibility and usefulness.
Read the full article: ‘Vital Exhaustion’? Just Don’t Call It ‘Nervous Breakdown’
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Jun 2010
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Grohol, J. (2010). Help! I’m Having a Nervous Breakdown. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/06/01/help-im-having-a-nervous-breakdown/