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 What is a nervous breakdown? It should be noted that although many people classify a nervous breakdown as a “mental breakdown” – a nervous breakdown is merely a subtype of mental breakdown that involves intense feelings of anxiety and stress – this is what causes us to react with our “nerves” and we feel “nervous.”

A nervous breakdown is typically caused by excessive activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This triggers a “fight or flight” response in the body and results in intense feelings of anxiety and tension. This anxiety becomes so overwhelming that we are unable to cope with life. I personally have experienced a nervous breakdown, so I know how difficult it can be to cope with.

During this experience, you may feel as though life is completely hopeless and that you will never recover or return to normal. It can be both scary and difficult to cope with these symptoms because your body is either in a state of hyperarousal or is transitioning into one. You may feel as if you are going crazy and may experience rapid thinking, feel depressed, and suicidal. Your outlook on the future may seem pretty bleak and things may feel as if they are never going to be the same.

The truth is that many people have experienced nervous breakdowns to a very severe degree and have made full recoveries back to biopsychosocial homeostasis. I am a prime example that recovery is possible – my breakdown lasted over a year and the recovery process certainly did not happen overnight. I am of the belief that the recovery from a nervous breakdown is somewhat proportionate to the build-up or onset length of the symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown

Common signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown can vary from person to person. In general, the hallmark symptoms include: anxiety, nervousness, stress, increased arousal, and tension. Whether you are a man, woman, teenager, or elderly, below is a list of some things you may experience.
  • Anxiety: The anxiety that you experience during a nervous breakdown can become overwhelming. In fact, most people are not able to cope with it until they learn that this anxiety is simply the result of their body’s stress response.
  • Appetite changes: People may feel like not eating any food. It is more common to avoid eating than it is to want to overeat. Everyone copes differently though and some people may turn to eating large amounts of food as a means of coping.
  • Depersonalization: This is a classic symptom that you may experience. It involves feeling unlike your natural self. You feel like an entirely different person, often void of emotion, and stressed. You may even feel like a zombie or as though an alien has invaded your brain.
  • Depression: The depression that you experience during a nervous breakdown is often a result of extreme anxiety. The anxiety becomes crippling and you lose all confidence, isolate yourself, feel alone, and as if you will never recover. Your entire outlook on life becomes that of dread and gloom.
  • Confusion: It is common to experience confusion and confused thinking. When your brain is overloaded with a stress response, it can be difficult to think clearly.
  • “Going crazy”: You may think or fear that you are going crazy, have some undiagnosed mental illness, or are schizophrenic. Just know that it is much more likely that you are just overly stressed.
  • Headaches: These are typically a result of tension, inability to relax, and inability to get proper sleep.  As soon as you are able to calm down and get some rest, it can help with headaches.
  • Hopelessness: Some people become hopeless about their future because they think they will never recover.
  • Hypochondria: Physical symptoms are common during a nervous breakdown. These accompanied with the rapid, stressful thinking can make you think that you have a severe physical illness. Often times these symptoms seem so real from a first-person perspective that even with reassurance from a doctor that nothing is wrong, we continue to freak out and think there is some undiagnosed, untreated condition.
  • Hyperarousal: Feeling hyperaroused involves feeling energetic, tense, stressed, and stimulated. Typically when we are overstressed for an extensive period of time to the point of “breaking down” we become hyperaroused.
  • Inability to concentrate: You may experience rapid, obsessive thinking and may actually get so stressed that you cannot concentrate at work or school.
  • Insomnia: One of the most common symptoms is insomnia or the inability to fall asleep.  This is due to overstimulation and high amounts of stress.  The person literally cannot calm their brain down to help themselves get a good night’s sleep.
  • Isolation: Some people experiencing a breakdown may isolate themselves from friends and family because they don’t know how to cope. Men are more likely to isolate than women.
  • Losing control: You may fear as though you are losing control of your mind and entire life.
  • Losing interest: You may lose interest in pleasurable activities such as sex or hanging out with friends.
  • Memory problems: People can struggle with both short term and long term memory when extremely stressed. These memory issues are not permanent and will subside as soon as the individual trains themselves to relax again.
  • Mood swings: It’s common to experience anger, hate, resent, and other negative emotions throughout the day. When people are stressed, there’s no telling what their mood will be – it can change on a whim.
  • Nervousness: This is the primary symptom of a nervous breakdown. Nervousness is an interchangeable term with anxiety and stress.
  • Physical pain: Some people report bodily pain and muscle pain. This can be a result of tension and rigidity throughout the body, but can also be a somatic issue.
  • Rapid thinking: When you have a breakdown, your thinking can become increasingly rapid. Typically this rapid thinking involves unfavorable, obsessive, and negative thoughts.
  • Sensitivity to sounds / lights: When we become overstimulated with stress, we can become highly sensitized to loud noises and bright lights. These things can further stress us out.
  • Suicidal thoughts: It is very common to feel suicidal during a nervous breakdown. This is because we don’t know what’s going on in our body and we can’t control our thoughts or emotions. These feelings are normal, but should be addressed in therapy.
  • Sleeplessness: People often experience broken sleep throughout the night because they cannot relax.
  • Stress: The stress you experience may be greater than ever before. In fact it may become so great that you feel as though you cannot cope with life anymore. The not being able to cope anymore is the “breakdown.”
  • Tension: Physical tension is one of the most common signs of a nervous breakdown. You may feel tense all over and not know how to deal with it.

How to Overcome a Nervous Breakdown

Explaining how to overcome a nervous breakdown scientifically is pretty easy. The goal is to increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system – which is responsible for helping the body relax. By increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, you will naturally decrease activity in the sympathetic nervous system.
This will allow you to experience increased levels of relaxation. However, this is much easier said than done. In someone that has already experienced a total breakdown, their brain and body is wired to stay in hyper drive. The goal is to help them recognize that they are experiencing an intense state of anxiety and/or emotional response, and to use various tools to increase parasympathetic nervous system activation.
1.     Psychotherapy: Getting yourself in to a psychologist of licensed psychotherapist can be beneficial for your recovery. They will work with you to address and correct faulty thinking patterns and behavior. This can be highly effective for people struggling with a breakdown.
2.     Relaxation techniques: Techniques such as progressive relaxation and guided meditation have been found to be effective at reducing the body’s stress response and increasing the parasympathetic (relaxation) response.
3.     Exercise: Some would argue that the effects of intense aerobic exercise can actually make symptoms of a nervous breakdown more intense. However, the cumulative effects of exercise over time are generally good for the brain and body. Exercise will help your body utilize the extra “nervous” energy that it has created and may help you sleep better at night.  
4.      Medications: You may benefit from taking an antidepressant or anti-anxiety (anxiolytic) drug to help you cope with the symptoms.

Have you ever experienced a nervous breakdown? Were you able to overcome it?

For some people, the symptoms of a nervous breakdown can last weeks or months. In some cases, the symptoms may persist into a more chronic form of anxiety that lasts for years. If a person takes proper care of themselves by getting into psychotherapy and relaxation techniques, they can usually get over it in a relatively short period of time. However, some people do not treat their nervous condition with professional help and end up unnecessarily suffering for years. If you experienced a nervous breakdown, feel free to share how you overcame the symptoms and/or more about your experience.

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