What Is a Mental Breakdown?

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one, I may earn a commission at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Key Takeaways:

  • A mental breakdown, or nervous breakdown, is a period of extreme mental or emotional stress.
  • It is not a medical diagnosis, but rather a situation when mental health symptoms become overwhelming.
  • Common signs include hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, worthlessness, insomnia, appetite changes, inability to focus, and severe life disappointment.
  • Underlying mental health conditions often play a role, but a specific stressful event can also trigger a breakdown.
  • Seeking help from a doctor or mental health professional is important for anyone experiencing a mental breakdown.


Mental health has become an increasingly discussed topic in recent years as more people face challenges with conditions like anxiety, depression, and stress. While many seek treatment and find relief through therapy, medication, or lifestyle changes, breakdowns in mental health still occur. A “mental breakdown”, sometimes called a “nervous breakdown”, is a non-medical term used to describe a period of time when someone experiences extreme mental or emotional distress that impairs normal functioning.

The purpose of this comprehensive, evidence-based article is to analyze what a mental breakdown entails, including its causes, symptoms, risk factors, and tips for coping or seeking help. With mental health struggles on the rise, it is valuable for individuals to understand mental breakdowns as a phenomenon that, while disruptive, can be managed with care and professional support. Read on to gain a deeper knowledge of this mental health experience.

A mental breakdown is not a trivial event. It represents a convergence of symptoms that overwhelm a person’s usual coping capacities. However, breakdowns can be overcome, especially when the individual gets assistance. Understanding the signs, underlying factors, and treatment options for mental breakdowns empowers both sufferers and their loved ones.

What Events Can Trigger a Mental Breakdown?

What circumstances tend to precede a mental breakdown? While breakdowns sometimes occur without an obvious cause, research shows that certain stressors often play a role.

Work Stress

  • According to a 2012 study by Morneau Shepell, 77% of people said work stress triggers mental breakdowns.
  • Work overload, conflict, pressure, and lack of work-life balance were frequently cited causes.

Trauma and Loss

  • Loss of a loved one, divorce, accidents, natural disasters, abuse, and other traumas can overwhelm normal coping abilities.
  • A 2015 study found sexual assault survivors had a 95% increased risk of a breakdown.

Major Life Changes

  • Even positive changes like a promotion at work or moving can be demanding.
  • Studies show major life changes in the prior year predicted hospitalization for mental breakdowns.

Financial Problems

  • Money stress like debt, foreclosure, or unemployment heightened breakdown risk by 30% per a 2013 study.

Physical Health Issues

  • Debilitating medical problems can contribute to mental health deterioration.
  • A chronic illness diagnosis more than doubled odds of a breakdown in one study.

Underlying Mental Health Disorders

  • Many who experience breakdowns have pre-existing conditions like depression, PTSD, or anxiety.
  • Stress can worsen symptoms of these disorders and lead to a crisis point.

In summary, while breakdowns sometimes arise with no clear trigger, research indicates situational stressors like work, grief, finances, health concerns, and major life changes commonly play a role.

What Are the Symptoms and Warning Signs?

How can you identify if someone is having a mental breakdown? There are a wide variety of possible symptoms, both emotional and physical. Some of the most common signs include:

Extreme Hopelessness

  • Feeling like life will never improve or problems are permanent.
  • Thoughts that happiness is impossible.

Suicidal Thoughts

  • Breakdowns often involve suicidal ideation or thoughts of self-harm.
  • This 2017 study found a strong link between breakdowns and suicidal tendencies.


  • Viewing oneself as a failure, defective, or incompetent.
  • Feeling inadequate and ashamed.

Inability to Sleep

  • Tossing, turning, and inability to fall or stay asleep.
  • Potentially caused by anxiety and constant worrying.

Appetite Changes

  • Eating too much or too little due to stress.
  • Weight fluctuations.

Inability to Focus

  • Impaired concentration, distractibility, and forgetfulness.
  • Mental fogginess or confusion.

Severe Disappointment

  • Intense dissatisfaction with accomplishments and self.
  • A sense of not having lived up to potential.


  • Pulling away from family, friends, hobbies, and regular activities.
  • Isolation and reluctance to participate in social settings.


  • Feeling drained, sluggish, and lacking energy.
  • Potentially coupled with hypersomnia or excessive sleeping.


  • Constant worrying, panic attacks, feeling on edge.
  • Obsessive thoughts.

Keep in mind that each person may exhibit unique symptoms based on their circumstances. But typically, several of these signs will be present simultaneously when someone is having a mental breakdown.

What Factors Increase the Risk?

Certain characteristics and conditions seem to increase an individual’s likelihood of experiencing a mental breakdown during their lifetime. Here are some of the top risk factors according to scientific research:

  • Existing mental illness – People with conditions like depression have a higher baseline stress level and greater vulnerability.
  • Trauma history – Early trauma from abuse, witnessing violence, etc predisposes people to breakdowns when faced with stress as adults.
  • Genetics – A family history of mental illness elevates risk substantially, per a 2012 study.
  • Perfectionistic traits – Extremely high standards for oneself add pressure that can culminate in breakdowns.
  • Substance abuse – Alcohol and drugs are maladaptive coping mechanisms that exacerbate mental health issues.
  • Few social supports – Social isolation and loneliness make coping with stress more challenging.
  • Female gender – Women’s lifetime risk of mental breakdowns was 29.5% vs. 18.6% for men in one study.

The more of these risk factors one has, the higher their odds generally are of one day reaching a breaking point during an extremely difficult life period. However, anyone can potentially have a mental breakdown under sufficient stress.

How Are Mental Breakdowns Diagnosed?

Since a mental breakdown is not a clinical diagnosis, no specific diagnostic criteria exist. However, a doctor will likely assess:

  • Symptoms – Evaluation of presenting symptoms like hopelessness, sleep issues, lack of concentration, etc.
  • Mental health history – Prior diagnoses like anxiety, depression, and trauma history.
  • Event timeline – Understanding the events and stressors leading up to the breakdown.
  • Daily functioning – Impact on basic tasks like working, grooming, socializing.
  • Safety risks – Assessment of self-harm or suicidal thoughts.
  • Co-occurring conditions – Screening for substance abuse, physical health problems.
  • Support system – Availability of psychosocial supports and resources.

This information helps pinpoint contributors to the breakdown and determine if specific diagnoses like major depression or PTSD are warranted. The goal is developing an effective treatment plan.

What Are Effective Ways to Cope?

When in the throes of a breakdown, what coping strategies may help stabilize your mental health? Consider the following methods:

Connect with Loved Ones

  • Don’t isolate. Confide in trusted friends/family for support.
  • According to a 2020 study, social support aids breakdown recovery.

Make Self-Care a Priority

  • Focus on proper sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress management.
  • Build in relaxing activities that you enjoy.

Adjust Major Stressors

  • If possible, reduce sources of stress, even temporarily.
  • For example, take leave from work, hire help with childcare, or avoid people/places that add pressure.

Try Grounding Strategies

  • In moments of acute anxiety, grounding can help calm the nervous system.
  • Tactile methods like holding an ice cube or soft blanket can be effective.

Limit News/Social Media

  • Constant input from screens can overstimulate the overwhelmed mind.
  • Set boundaries on how much news and social media you consume.

Keep a Routine

  • Maintaining a regular schedule helps rebuild stability.
  • Make to-do lists, set alarms, and organize your days.

Give Yourself Grace

  • Be patient and understanding with yourself, rather than self-critical.
  • Respect your limitations and focus on gradual progress.

You may need to experiment with different self-care and coping methods to find what works best for your situation. But steadfast gentleness, social connection, and professional support combine to put you on the path to emerging from a breakdown.

When Should I Seek Professional Help?

Mental breakdowns are not something to take lightly. Seeking assistance from a doctor or mental health specialist is crucial. Here are some signs it is absolutely time to reach out for professional support:

  • You have thoughts of harming yourself or others.
  • Basic functioning like working, eating, or bathing feels impossible.
  • Anxiety or depression symptoms persist for most of the day, nearly every day.
  • You abuse alcohol, drugs, or medication to cope.
  • Social isolation, unusual behavior changes, and detachment from reality.
  • Suicidal thoughts or plans.
  • Your symptoms significantly interfere with work, school, relationships, or health.
  • You have trouble controlling your behavior or emotions.
  • Existing mental health issues are spiraling out of control.

Don’t delay if you recognize any of the above patterns. A breakdown is not something you should try to tough out alone. Counseling, medication, hospitalization, and other treatments can rapidly stabilize acute mental health crises. There is no shame in needing help – seeking it embodies self-care.

What Treatment Options Exist?

Once professional assistance is obtained, what resources can aid the recovery process? Common treatments for mental breakdowns include:


  • Antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and other pharmaceuticals help rebalance brain chemistry.
  • 70% of people in one study said medications helped end their breakdown.


  • Talk therapy approaches like CBT provide coping skills for thought patterns.
  • Developing self-compassion may be a focus.


  • For high safety risks, inpatient programs provide stabilization.
  • Hospitalization averages 1-3 weeks, per Mayo Clinic.

Group Therapy

  • Support groups connect you to others facing similar struggles.
  • Sharing coping strategies can be very beneficial.

Mindfulness Practices

  • Meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises alleviate anxiety.
  • Staying grounded in the present helps disrupt rumination.

Creative Arts Therapies

  • Expressive outlets like art, dance, or music therapy can aid healing.
  • A 2015 study found these reduced breakdown recovery time.

Treatment generally involves a combination of therapies plus lifestyle changes like improved sleep habits, exercise, and minimizing stressors. With professional help and self-care, breakdowns can be overcome.

What Is the Outlook After a Mental Breakdown?

The long-term outlook following a mental breakdown varies on a case-by-case basis influenced by factors like:

  • Existing conditions – Underlying disorders like depression often require ongoing management.
  • Support system – Strong social and family support improves prospects.
  • Treatment – Consistent treatment compliance boosts outcomes.
  • Self-care – Continuing healthy lifestyle habits and stress reduction.
  • Triggers – Avoiding or resolving breakdown triggers if possible.
  • Resilience – High resilience and self-esteem aids in bouncing back.

With optimal treatment and personal care, many people recover fully from isolated breakdown episodes, especially if precipitating stressors are resolved. However, breakthrough symptoms can return if strategies for managing life’s challenges and stresses are not bolstered. Long-term mental health support frequently becomes part of one’s self-care routine.

Key Takeaways on Mental Breakdowns

In summary, some key points on mental breakdowns include:

  • They represent periods of extreme mental distress when coping mechanisms are overwhelmed.
  • Work stress, trauma, life changes, finances, and physical health often trigger breakdowns.
  • Warning signs range from hopelessness and suicidal thoughts to fatigue and appetite changes.
  • Those with mental illness histories and inadequate social support are at increased risk.
  • Professional treatment combined with self-care and lifestyle changes can help overcome breakdowns.
  • With proper ongoing support, many people recover and resume their normal lives.

Understanding the causes, symptoms, risk factors and treatments for mental breakdowns is imperative to address such periods of crisis. Seeking help promptly when warning signs appear is crucial. If you believe you or someone you love is experiencing a mental breakdown, know that hope and healing are absolutely attainable with time and care.

About The Author

Scroll to Top