8 Minutes

Edited & clinically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
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It is normal for everyone to feel overwhelmed from time to time. Stressors from everyday life, both acute and chronic, can easily trigger feelings of sadness, anxiety, and an inability to cope. However, some people find it much harder to cope with these stressors, eventually suffering from mental breakdowns.

If you have ever felt on the verge of having a mental breakdown, know that you are not alone. Parental stressors, work-related worries, and constant pressure to succeed, along with hundreds of other triggers, push many people to feel like they are at a crisis point. A mental breakdown may not necessarily feel or look like an apparent outburst for such people. Intense anxiety and stress may sometimes increase gradually until it becomes intolerable to cope with. Regardless of how a mental breakdown presents itself, it is imperative to learn how to identify it and keep it under control so that any issues in the foreseeable future can be avoided.

Mental Breakdown

Everybody tends to experience anxiety and stress when under pressure, mostly at manageable levels. However, when these feelings of worry, anxiety, or stress slowly build up to a level when they start impacting a person’s daily life, they may be collectively described as a mental breakdown.

A mental breakdown, also known as a mental health crisis or nervous breakdown, indicates a period of sheer mental distress. A person undergoing it is unable to function in day-to-day life temporarily. The term “mental breakdown” is not a medical term and is not recognized to describe an established mental health diagnosis. In fact, most people use it conversationally to define someone who is struggling to cope with worry, stress, and anxiety or who is overwhelmed by mental health issues.

Some multiple signs and symptoms indicate a potential mental breakdown. These signs mostly indicate an underlying need to get professional help as soon as they appear. Some mental breakdown symptoms relate to an individual’s mental health, while others relate to their physical health. These signs may vary from one person to another and mostly depend on the underlying cause triggering a mental breakdown.

Someone who is undergoing a mental breakdown may:

  • Have anxiety that they are unable to manage
  • Feel moody, low, depressed, burnout, or hopeless
  • Have hallucinations or vivid flashbacks of a traumatic or stressful event
  • Feel overwhelmed and unable to make decisions or concentrate on daily tasks
  • Feel isolated and disinterested in the company of friends and family
  • Withdraw from usual daily activities
  • Feel depersonalized and detached from the daily life
  • Have thoughts of self-harm
  • Feel paranoid; for example, someone is watching or stalking them
  • Be delusional and find it difficult to distinguish what is real from what is imaginary

Some physical symptoms related to a mental breakdown may include the following:

  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping due to having a lot going on in my mind
  • Muscle pain, stiffness, and soreness, particularly in the jaw, back, and neck
  • Frequent episodes of illnesses and increased susceptibility to infections
  • Exhaustion due to difficulty sleeping or constantly high anxiety levels
  • Hot or cold flushes, sweats, and clammy hands
  • Bowel problems, including irregular bowel movements and stomach cramps
  • A racing heart, tightness across the chest, or a lump in the throat

People who experience a mental breakdown tend to avoid social functions and may call in sick for work to isolate themselves at home. They may find it difficult to eat and sleep properly and look disheveled due to a lack of attention to their personal hygiene. If you are concerned that you or someone you know is displaying the common symptoms of a nervous breakdown, it is important to seek help as soon as possible. Untreated mental illness can pave way for longer-lasting mental problems along with other physical and social issues.

A mental breakdown does not have a defined set of signs and symptoms. It is also yet to be formally recognized by the healthcare community as a proper mental health diagnosis. Almost anything can trigger this condition, as every person seems to experience and handle stress differently. Knowing that no two people will have similar reactions to the environment they are in, it becomes imperative to understand what affects you and why. This helps you to easily recognize the risk of an impending mental breakdown and make efforts to prevent it from taking full effect.

Mentioned below is a list of common triggers that may lead to a mental breakdown in different individuals:

  • Financial stress
  • Medical trauma
  • Toxic work environments
  • Burnouts
  • Family stressors
  • Poor social support
  • Panic disorders
  • A divorce or breakup
  • Recent bereavement
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • High-functioning depression
  • Toxic stress
  • Anxiety disorders

Someone with poor coping skills is also at a heightened risk of acquiring a mental breakdown as they are unable to handle high-stress levels. There is no way to gauge the level of stress that may trigger a potential mental breakdown, as different people have varying coping skills. While some people are able to endure very high-stress levels, others may give in to the everyday stressors and go into a mental breakdown.

While it is not possible to always prevent a mental breakdown, as it may come without a prior warning, there are different things you can do to cope with and mitigate these attacks before they damage your life more permanently. Finding the motivation to survive and swim upstream from a mental breakdown can seem impossible, but it is entirely possible. In this respect, keep the following tips in mind to improve your coping.

Stress Management

Stress management helps individuals work towards balancing their emotional scale of things that stress them out. It also helps de-stress them by scheduling enjoyable or relaxing activities. For most people, stress occurs when circumstances get out of control, eventually leading to a nervous breakdown that may seem impossible to control. Identifying what stresses someone and how to manage it makes it possible to take a more active role in controlling life.

Meeting Basic Needs

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, developing the capacity for actively enjoying everyday hobbies and connecting with others requires the most basic needs of an individual to be met first. So reach out for support from your friends, family, or local organizations in whatever way you desire, such as with food, clothing, and shelter.

Sleep Regulation

Sleep is one of the basic needs of the human body and brain. As a person sleeps, their brain continues to process all the emotional information it gathers during the day. A low-quality sleep can give the brain less time to process the anxiety, laying it to rest. As a result, the stress levels remain unaddressed the following day and contribute to sleep disturbances. This perpetuates a chronic cycle that is hard to get out of. The impact of sleep on the brain and mental health is paramount; hence, pay attention to improving your sleep to reduce the risk of having a mental breakdown.

Exercise

Exercise might be the last thing someone will want to do in the middle of a mental breakdown; however, it can have multiple lasting benefits on mental health. Various studies have confirmed that while a period of strenuous activity initially spikes stress levels, it eventually lowers the stress hormones with time while boosting the release of happy hormones, such as serotonin and dopamine. So people who feel at risk of developing a mental breakdown can make a difference by incorporating at least 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a day in the form of any activity they enjoy, such as bicycling or walking.

Healthy Dietary Habits

While many people may not realize it, diet tends to greatly influence a person’s stress levels and overall mental health. Eating foods that boost the production of the feel-good hormones in the brain can curb an ongoing episode of a mental breakdown and prevent it in the future. The primary keys here are to increase your daily water intake, decrease caffeine and alcohol consumption, and pay close attention to the body’s cues for feeling hungry or full. Trying to fill up your snack shelf with healthier options with a high amount of protein instead of carbohydrates is also another way to maintain your overall health.

Opposite Action

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a therapy widely used to tackle common mental health issues, suggests that one way to combat overwhelming feelings in the brain is by acting opposite to them. First, recognize the emotions you are feeling and how it is making you act, followed by doing the exact opposite of what you otherwise feel compelled to do. For instance, if you are stressed due to an assignment and feel like avoiding it, try to face it head-on instead of procrastinating.

Confidence-Boosting Activities

If you have hit a point during a mental breakdown where doing anything feels useless to you, ponder over an activity that you used to enjoy. It can be anything, from painting and playing sports to working on cars. Take some time during the week to practice these activities that are meaningful to you and use them to regain some sense of competence and build confidence. In time, these activities will help you regain control of your life.

Medical Checkup

If you are going through frequent mental breakdowns, one after the other, and nothing seems to be helping, check in with a doctor to ensure nothing is wrong with your body. Not every mental breakdown originates from accumulated anxiety or stress and might be due to an underlying health issue. Sleep apnea, thyroid dysfunction, and internal inflammation are some of the causes that can potentially impact your mental health, masking the underlying cause of your emotional response.

Therapy

Try speaking to someone who has been trained to help you manage your mental health issues. A skilled therapist can work with you to identify the underlying cause of your mental breakdown, help you build on your current strengths, teach you different coping skills, and help you live healthier. These therapists can also help you reframe your view of the challenging circumstances you are currently in and teach you to manage your emotions.

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