Nervous Breakdown

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What is nervous breakdown?

A nervous breakdown refers to an acute attack of anxiety that disrupts your daily life. Nervous breakdowns are part of a family of mental disorders known as anxiety disorders. Nervous breakdowns can happen when you are experiencing sudden, extreme, or prolonged stress. When a nervous breakdown happens, you may feel like you lose control of your feelings and give in to stress, anxiety, or worry.

Symptoms of a nervous breakdown include feelings of worry, nervousness, fear, anxiety, or stress. They can also include sweating, crying, fast thinking, muscle tension, trembling, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, nausea, irritability, and insomnia. Unlike panic attacks, which can happen suddenly and without apparent reason, nervous breakdowns are usually related to some sort of stress.

The cause of a nervous breakdown is usually an excessive stress response by the body. They can also result from a chemical imbalance of neurotransmitters, substances that control brain and nerve signaling. Nervous breakdowns can happen to anyone, but are more likely if you have a personal history of anxiety disorders or if you are experiencing a period of high stress in your life.

Treatment for nervous breakdowns may be as simple as modifying your lifestyle to include more sleep and relaxation. Therapy, such as talk therapy, may also be helpful when confronting stressful periods of your life or stressful memories. In some cases, medications may be required to help you cope with your anxiety. With the use of therapy and medications, nervous breakdowns can usually be avoided or managed.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as thoughts of self-harm or suicide, inability to care for your basic needs, or thoughts of harming others.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for an anxiety disorder and symptoms persist or worsen.

What are the symptoms of nervous breakdown?

Symptoms of nervous breakdown include negative feelings, such as feelings of nervousness and stress. Nervous breakdowns usually correspond to a period of high stress in your life, or a time when you feel like you just can’t take any more.

Common symptoms of nervous breakdowns

You may experience nervous breakdown symptoms daily or just once in a while. At times any of these nervous breakdown symptoms can be severe:

  • Crying
  • Dizziness
  • Fast-paced thinking
  • Feelings of worry, fear, anxiety or stress
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea) or shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, nervous breakdown can be a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

  • Inability to care for your basic needs
  • Thoughts or self harm or harming others

What causes nervous breakdown?

Nervous breakdowns are caused by your body’s stress response. In some cases, your body reacts inappropriately to stress, or you are faced with so much stress that your body cannot react appropriately. In these cases, you can feel excess anxiety that can lead to a nervous breakdown.

Nervous breakdowns can happen because of abnormally stressful situations or long-term high stress levels. They can also result from certain medications and substances. In most cases, however, nervous breakdowns are related to an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders that can lead to nervous breakdown

Common anxiety disorders that may lead to nervous breakdowns include:

Other causes of nervous breakdown

Nervous breakdowns may also result from a variety of other situations including:

  • Certain medications
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Long-term stress
  • Recalling stressful memories
  • Stressful events

What are the risk factors for nervous breakdown?

A number of factors increase the risk of having a nervous breakdown. Not all people with risk factors will have a nervous breakdown. Risk factors for nervous breakdowns include:

  • Family history of anxiety disorders
  • Inadequate sleep and relaxation
  • Ongoing stress such as stress from work
  • Personal history of anxiety disorders
  • Recent illness or injury
  • Recent stressful life event such as divorce or financial problems
  • Sense of inadequate support from others
  • Serious financial concerns (bankruptcy, foreclosure)

Reducing your risk of nervous breakdown

You may be able to lower your risk of a nervous breakdown by:

  • Avoiding alcohol and drugs
  • Avoiding caffeine
  • Breathing deeply when you feel stressed or anxious
  • Exercising regularly
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Practicing relaxation techniques
  • Seeking counseling for stress and stressful life events

How is nervous breakdown treated?

Nervous breakdowns may be treatable by lifestyle modifications such as practicing regular relaxation or learning breathing techniques to practice when you feel stress coming on. In some cases, however, especially when nervous breakdowns are related to an anxiety disorder, medication may be required to treat your nervous breakdown. Therapy, such as talk therapy, is also helpful for many people.

Treatments for nervous breakdown

Treatments for the stress and chemical imbalances that can lead to nervous breakdowns include:

  • Lifestyle modification, including relaxation techniques, eliminating certain substances such as caffeine from your diet, and scheduled sleeping

  • Medications, such as antianxiety medications or antidepressants, to address chemical imbalances

  • Therapy such as talk, cognitive or behavioral therapy

What you can do to lessen the severity of a nervous breakdown

In addition to following the treatment plan developed by your health care providers, you may be able to lessen the frequency and severity of your nervous breakdowns by:

  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and drugs

  • Getting counseling for stress management

  • Getting regular exercise

  • Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation

  • Sleeping regularly

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with nervous breakdowns. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

What are the potential complications of nervous breakdown?

A single nervous breakdown may not have any complications. You may be able to treat your nervous breakdown with lifestyle modification and counseling. In serious cases, however, nervous breakdowns can lead to the development of a more severe disorder. Complications of untreated or poorly controlled nervous breakdowns can be serious. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of nervous breakdown include:

  • Absenteeism from work or school
  • Depression
  • Development of an anxiety disorder such as a phobia
  • Embarrassment
  • Social isolation
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Stress. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  2. Anxiety. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  3. Kroenke K, Spitzer RL, Williams JB, et al. Anxiety disorders in primary care: prevalence, impairment, comorbidity, and detection. Ann Intern Med 2007; 146:317.