A nervous breakdown describes when a person quickly loses their ability to function in daily life. It usually occurs because of extreme stress.

It’s natural to worry sometimes, or occasionally feel emotions like pessimism. However, if you find yourself overwhelmed and unable to cope with daily life, you may be experiencing more than a typical amount of stress.

Even though the term “nervous breakdown” is familiar, it’s not an official diagnosis. Instead, it’s a name for a mental health crisis that occurs when someone experiences enough stress or trauma that they can no longer function.

For example, if someone close to you becomes very ill or dies, the impact might prevent you from working or spending time with friends. You might be emotionally distraught, or even physically unwell because of grief and stress.

A nervous breakdown can be brief and last only a few days, or it can persist. Some people need the help of treatment to move through the crisis they’re experiencing.

Stress is a natural part of life. Small amounts of stress can be a positive influence that motivates you to overcome challenges.

Larger stresses activate the protective force called the sympathetic nervous system. Also known as “fight, flight, or freeze,” this protective response stimulates the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to help you manage adversity.

Fight, flight, or freeze isn’t meant to be a prolonged response, though. When your nervous system doesn’t relax after a crisis, the lingering activation can lead to adverse effects like a nervous breakdown.

Circumstances that trigger a nervous breakdown can vary and may not be the same for everyone. Some common examples include:

Isolation, or a lack of social support, can also contribute by making an otherwise manageable situation more difficult.

Sometimes a person experiencing a nervous breakdown is living with an undiagnosed mental health issue, like:

Or they may have a diagnosis but have stopped following their treatment plan, which can lead to a nervous breakdown.

Sometimes even a positive life change can trigger a nervous breakdown because of the stress it can cause. Examples include having a baby or receiving a notable job promotion.

A nervous breakdown can cause a wide range of symptoms.

Emotional symptoms

  • unmanageable anxiety
  • moodiness
  • sadness
  • depression
  • a feeling of being overwhelmed
  • social isolation
  • thoughts of self-harm
  • agitation
  • anger

Cognitive symptoms

Physical symptoms

Behavioral changes

Therapy and medication are often effective treatments for a mental health crisis like a nervous breakdown.

Therapy can be done individually or in a group. A therapist will help you to manage your thoughts and feelings about the situation that’s causing you distress. You’ll also learn valuable coping skills that you can use between sessions.

Medication is another treatment option that can relieve some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety. This can make it easier to participate in therapy and practice self-care.

If your nervous breakdown is connected to an undiagnosed mental health issue, medication may be one of the treatments for that condition.

Treatment location can vary depending on a person’s situation. Options include:

  • staying at home
  • attending appointments at an outpatient center
  • inpatient facilities like crisis stabilization units and extended observation units
  • hospitalization, either voluntary or involuntary

Self-care tips to consider

Self-care can help by making you feel better both physically and emotionally.

Some tips to try include:

  • Eat a nutrient-dense diet.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Nurture supportive social connections.
  • Spend time outdoors in nature.
  • Find an enjoyable hobby.
  • Practice stress reduction techniques like mindfulness training and breathing exercises.
  • Set personal boundaries so you have less to overwhelm you.
  • Be proactive with your thought patterns using positive self-talk or mantras.
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Support can help you through a mental health crisis like a nervous breakdown.

At first, you might feel like withdrawing from the world and waiting for your stress and trauma to pass.

If waiting it out and practicing self-care isn’t enough, you can seek support in several ways:

If you experience thoughts of self-harm, seek immediate help.

Consider visiting Psych Central’s page for a list of crisis resources.

Nervous breakdown isn’t a formal diagnosis. Instead, it’s a way of describing the loss of daily functioning you might experience because of prolonged stress or trauma.

A nervous breakdown can affect a person in many ways. You might experience emotions like sadness and hopelessness. You may notice cognitive changes like brain fog or decreased attention span. You might even feel physically ill and lose your motivation for self-care.

The duration of a nervous breakdown can depend on several factors, like the amount of support you have or whether you seek treatment. Professional help can enable you to process your experience and provide you with valuable coping skills.