Nervous Breakdown what is it?

What is a Nervous Breakdown

What is a Nervous Breakdown or Mental Breakdown ? 

Nervous breakdown and mental breakdown are very outdated terms still used by the lay person typically describing emotional or physical stress that makes someone unable to function in day-to-day life.

Though once used as umbrella term for a wide range of mental illnesses, mental health professionals do not use the term “nervous breakdown” or “mental breakdown” or “emotional breakdown” to describe any specific medical or psychiatric condition. There is no such diagnosis in the DSM-V nor the ICD-10

  • The symptoms of a so-called “nervous breakdown” vary widely between individuals.
  • Medically speaking, there is no such thing as a “nervous breakdown”.
  • Treatment for a nervous or “mental breakdown” depends on the cause or multi-causes and risk factors (i.e. etiologies).

Nonetheless, a so-called “nervous breakdown” remains as a presentation underlying many mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

The signs and symptoms of what some people may still call a “nervous breakdown” depend on the underlying medical and/or psychiatric condition.

Diagnosis of a “Nervous Breakdown”

It is no longer a recognized medical term, so, technically, there is no way to diagnose using the term:  “nervous breakdown” or “emotional breakdown” .

Doctors of mental health: Clinical Psychologists and Psychiatrists will try to identify contributing causes and/or medical problems that may be contributing etiologies to the so-called “nervous breakdown”. These doctors will ask questions about symptoms and signs, conduct a BioPsychoSocial examination, review an individual’s medical history, and order tests.

18 Common Signs and Symptoms

Since it is not associated with any specific medical condition, a nervous or mental breakdown does not have any defined symptoms aside from difficulty or inability to function “normally.”

What it takes for a person to be considered “fully functioning” differs across cultures, religions or belief systems, and even families.

However, there are 18 common signs and symptoms (some or all) that are often a reported by the lay person when they state they are having a  “nervous or mental breakdown”:

  • Feeling anxious, depressed, fearful, irritable
  • Feeling helpless, hopeless, despair
  • Negative ruminative binge thinking 
  • Social withdrawal or avoiding normal social situations (i.e isolation)
  • Missing work, appointments, calling in sick
  • Dysregulated sleep patterns, sleeping too much (hypersomnia) or difficulty falling a sleep or staying a sleep (insomnia)
  • Loss of appetite, overeating, or unhealthy eating 
  • Lack hygiene and grooming, often due to people forgetting or not being motivated to clean and groom oneself. 
  • Difficulty focusing, impaired attention, and/ or remembering recent events or recent conversations.
  • Feeling frequently emotionally drained and physically exhausted
  • Impaired of motivation and lack of interest in things
  • Unable to get enjoyment or fulfillment from things that normally bring joy or satisfaction (i.e. anhedonia) 
  • Unexplained general body aches and pains
  • Difficulty getting along with or tolerating other people
  • suicidal thoughts or thinking about harming oneself
  • Lack of interest in sex and changes in menstrual cycle
  • Moving or speaking more slowly than normal
  • Traumatic flashbacks, severe nightmares, and fight-flight-freeze symptoms, such as racing heartbeat, dry mouth, and sweating, when there is no threat or danger

In extreme or untreated cases, especially when related to mental health conditions associated with psychosis, symptoms may also include hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and lack of insight.

Treatment, Intervention, and Prevention of a “Nervous BreakDown” or “Mental BreakDown” 

There are a few things that may help reduce symptoms of emotional breakdown and physical stress. Additionally, most of the treatment option interventions for a nervous breakdown also help prevent the condition.

Common treatment and prevention strategies for a nervous breakdown include:

  • Seek psychotherapy with a Clinical Psychologist 
  • Reduce, avoid, or resolve sources of stressors, such as conflicts at home or workplace demands
  • Deep breathing and meditation to support mental and physical relaxation. 
  • yoga and tai chi that promote gentle stretching or movement coupled with controlled breathing
  • Exercise daily at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity. 
  • Spend time outside in nature or finding hobbies that encourage going outdoors
  • Set up healthy hygiene, sleeping, and eating schedules. 
  • Create a distraction-free sleeping environment to encourage quality sleep
  • Avoid the excessive use of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. 
  • Avoid junk food (processed food) and eat clean (fruits & vegetables). 
  • Take multivitamin and drink plenty of electrolyte water and drink probiotics (e.g. Kombucha) daily. 
  • Avoid the use of illicit drugs

Causes and risk factors of nervous or “emotional breakdown” 

Anything that causes more emotional and physical stress than the body and mind can handle can lead to a nervous breakdown or trigger an underlying medical condition. They are causative and correlational MindBody. 

There are certain situations, genetic factors, and experiences that are more commonly associated with nervous or mental breakdowns than others.

Causes and risk factors for “nervous break down” include:

  • extreme grief
  • traumatizing experiences
  • an abusive relationship
  • jobs involving high-stress situations
  • jobs associated with emotional burnout
  • family history of mental health conditions
  • severe personal isolation
  • traumatizing and unrelenting stress
  • severe social conflict, especially if impacting work and home life
  • severe or chronic medical conditions or physical injuries that also affect emotional health 

When to See a Doctor who Specializes in Mental Health

It is a good idea to talk with a doctor (psychiatrist and clinical psychologist) who specializes in mental health anytime physical or emotional stress interferes with day-to-day life, routines, or activities. Early intervention is key. Prevention is also key.

However, often people experiencing so-called “nervous breakdown” are not able to recognize the extent of their symptoms or that they may need help.

Unfortunately, many people are reluctant to seek outside help for mental conditions out of fear that they will be judged (i.e. Stigma). 

They may also think that what is happening to them is somehow their fault, or that there are no treatment options available. However, this is not true.

If a loved one, friend, or roommate is showing several of the signs of a “nervous breakdown”, they should be encouraged to seek mental health assessment by a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist and be provided the  support to do so.

Shawna Freshwater, PhD

Shawna Freshwater, PhD

Hi, I am Dr. Shawna Freshwater, a PhD licensed Clinical Psychologist, Neuropsychologist, and Holistic Practitioner. ** I provide Psychotherapy, Coaching, Healing, Diagnostic testing & Mental Health Check-ups. ** I meet the needs of my patients and clients that are confidential and convenient to their schedule. ** I offer Remote / Online secure interactive video conferencing to USA residents and International clients. ** I also provide Concierge services at your home, office, or private location of your choice if you reside in South Florida Major Cities. ***Please see my website for more information about my credentials and areas of expertise. Thank you. Dr. Freshwater


  1. Christina on February 4, 2019 at 9:10 pm

    Thank you Dr. Freshwater
    I appreciate so much the comprehensive information provided.
    You have quite a library of articles in your Blog section.
    Thank you for providing so much free information.

  2. Paul R Cavanaugh on October 14, 2020 at 4:22 am

    Just because the medical community removes the word for a condition from its nomenclature does not mean the condition no longer can occur in persons. I am 70 years old and experienced a neurological event in the hospital back in 1972, for which I am still recovering. That is, I have been recovering for over 48 years. This neurological event was produced by a tragic collapse of my relationship with my psychiatrist due to his breaking of the transference that I had established with him. For some reason, of which I still do not know , he suddenly broke this transference during a session relating to a personal problem that I was addressing with him. This transference was required to support me during time of great personal conflict involving my parents. I was hospitalized immediately after the transference break. I experienced the neurological event while being escorted into the hospital. I will not describe the quality of the experience here in my comment ; however I would like to put forth my understanding of the nature of that neurological event.
    First , I have earned a B.A. in Physics in college, and was educated in the methods of research. The transference was needed to contain an intrusion into my life, at the age of 22 years, of childhood trauma that I had experienced at a very early age. The transference , as it were, was operating to defend against this intrusion, keeping it under. The sudden breaking of this transference resulted in the sudden onrush of this trauma into my consciousness. It resulted in a massive reordering of the neurological pathways in certain areas of my brain. Over the past 48 years, these pathways have been slowly been reordered through therapy and a very close personal relationship with my God. After having studied the nature of my recovery process in great detail, I have come to understand that the words “nervous breakdown”are entirely appropriate in describing my neurological event. The normal neural connections in areas of my conscienceness were “broken down” and replaced with a very disordered array of neural connections which contain the elements of the trauma mixed with a normal. consciousness.
    True, psychotic episodes do occur in people, and result in a “breakdown” in their ability to function. However, after about 6 months from the onset of the neurological event, I was functioning pretty much normally on the outside–working and relating to people pretty much normally. However, my mental and emotional life was filled with a hellish experience, for which there are no words. It wasn’t until recently that enough of my brain has been reordered to a normal state that I am again beginning to feel normal and healthy, my thoughts free of the elements of the trauma that had so devastatingly intruded into my brain and life.
    I would like to end this comment with my observation that I have met others who I instinctively knew had experienced a similar neurological event in their lives . Don’t assume that the phrase”nervous breakdown” does not faithfully describe serious mental and emotional states of damage in the brains and lived of others.
    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences regarding this tragic event in my life.


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