“Nervous breakdown” isn't a medical diagnosis. But, it’s a type of mental or emotional health crisis. You may feel an overwhelming amount of stress, anxiety or depression. In turn, you’re not able to function in daily life. Your healthcare provider will work with you to identify your stress trigger(s), develop a treatment plan and help you cope.
We’ve all heard someone say, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.” You may have said this yourself. But exactly what is a “nervous breakdown”? What does this truly mean?
A “nervous breakdown” is a vague term sometimes used by the public or the press. It’s fallen out of favor because it isn’t a medical term and — over time — it’s taken on a negative meaning.
“Nervous breakdown” isn’t a medical diagnosis. It’s not a term your healthcare provider is going to use. It’s not a specific mental condition. Instead, a mental health crisis or a breakdown of your mental health is a situation that happens when you have intense physical and emotional stress, have difficulty coping and aren’t able to function effectively. It’s the feeling of being physically, mentally and emotionally overwhelmed by the stress of life.
With a mental health crisis, your intense reaction to stress shares many features of other medical conditions. Some of the medical conditions you and your healthcare provider will explore as contributing to your mental distress include:
If you're having a mental health crisis, you may feel like you’re losing control. Some event or change in your life is causing you an intense amount of stress, which is causing symptoms such as fear, anxiety, worry, nervousness and depression. You may feel “stuck,” overwhelmed or incapacitated, which makes you unable to cope and function with life.
Factors that may contribute to your intense reaction to stress include:
A “nervous breakdown” can be a serious health issue if you can’t perform everyday activities because of your stress and struggle to cope.
Everyone handles stress differently. Some people are better able to cope with stress than others. However, when you can no longer do everyday tasks — like getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, or going to work — it’s time to seek professional help.
Some individuals may have thoughts of harming themselves. This is an emergency. Call 911, go to the emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255.
Signs and symptoms of a mental or emotional health crisis vary from person to person, depending on the underlying cause.
Common signs and symptoms include:
Some causes of stress that can become too intense and overwhelming to handle include:
Each person is unique, with their own “set point” for a breakdown. There’s no limit to the possible causes or combination of causes that might lead to a “nervous breakdown” or mental health crisis.
Your healthcare provider will:
Your healthcare provider may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist who are mental health professionals specifically trained in the areas of emotional, behavioral and mental health issues.
The main treatment of psychological or behavioral stress is psychotherapy (talk therapy). A commonly used form of psychotherapy is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The goal of CBT is to manage your intense stress and anxiety by changing the way you think, feel and behave.
During CBT, you’ll:
Your healthcare provider may also prescribe medications to manage your anxiety, depression or to help you sleep.
Perhaps the best thing you can do if you’re actively engaged in an overwhelmingly stressful situation is to step away from that environment — if you can. Think of this as your personal “time out.” Give yourself some time to calm your mind and body.
Practice deep breathing exercises. Breathe in a full belly of air through your nose (with your mouth closed), hold for three seconds, then breathe out slowly through pursed lips (like your whistling). Repeat a few times.
Call your healthcare provider. If you feel you’re in a crisis, call your healthcare provider right away.
If you have thoughts of harming yourself, call 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.TALK (1.800.273.8255). You’ll be talking with a skilled, trained counselor. This service is free and confidential and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Many of the best self-help tips involve lifestyle changes. Although these suggestions may not entirely prevent episodes of uncontrollable stress, anxiety or depression, they may reduce the intensity and frequency of these episodes.
It would appear that your reaction to stress, otherwise known in lay terms as a nervous or mental breakdown, is a time-limited condition that is usually brought on by some external event. Features of your reaction to the event are likely some combination of anxiety and depression and lack of an ability to adjust and cope.
No one can say for certain how long it takes to recover from a mental and emotional crisis. Each person is different and has unique stressors and the ability to learn how to cope. However, if you have been accurately diagnosed, your stressor(s) have been identified and you’ve received appropriate treatment, your symptoms are likely to go away within six months. The exception is if your stress is related to the loss of a loved one. In this case, recovery can be much longer.
When you feel that you can no longer cope with life’s stresses and challenges in healthy ways and you’re significantly struggling to complete ordinary, everyday tasks, it’s time to seek help. You may be at a point where managing your situation on your own isn’t possible. Your primary healthcare provider or a psychologist or psychiatrist can help decipher your symptoms and provide the help you need.
There are ways to help:
A psychotic break is when someone loses touch with reality and experiences delusions (false beliefs), hallucinations (seeing or hearing something that doesn’t exist) and paranoia. For the most part, a person who is overwhelmed with the stresses and challenges of life (or having a “nervous breakdown”) hasn’t lost touch with reality. They have lost the ability to cope with these stresses, which makes day-to-day functioning difficult.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
People commonly use words like “nervous breakdown” or “mental breakdown” to talk about when a person can’t cope with everyday life. Although the terms aren’t a medical diagnosis, your feelings, reactions and symptoms are very real. Extreme stress that causes intense mental and emotional distress, which keeps you from working, playing and enjoying life is a health condition. These are not signs of personal weakness or failure. If you have these feelings and symptoms, you’re not alone. See your healthcare professional for help.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/19/2022.
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