During a nervous breakdown—a catch-all term that can mean anything from a psychotic break to a panic attack—an individual may experience extreme anxiety, debilitating panic, or a major depression, explains Sally Winston, PsyD, co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland in Baltimore. Here, the causes, symptoms, and treatment of the disorder.

What Is a Nervous Breakdown

"The term "nervous breakdown" never was a medical term, but more like a popular definition," says Winston. "It means when things fall apart and you can't manage anymore or go on as usual."

A nervous breakdown is often precipitated by an extremely stressful situation such as a child's drug addiction, a dire financial situation, or the death of a spouse. Whatever brings it on, when someone is having a nervous breakdown, normal day-to-day activities are no longer possible.

Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown

"A nervous breakdown is a change from a person's ordinary level of functioning," says Barbara Herzig, MD, psychiatrist at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan and an Assistant Professor at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine. "A person's anxiety level gets so high they can't function any longer."

While symptoms vary widely, a person can either display very sudden, acute distress or could gradually cease functioning, explains Allen Weg, Ed D, founder and executive director of Stress and Anxiety Services of New Jersey. "Generally, when we are talking about a nervous breakdown, there is an acute onset that moves the person from functioning relatively normally to not functioning."

Who's at Risk for a Nervous Breakdown

Everyone is faced with stressors, says Herzig, but those who have a "significant social network" are at less of a risk for having panic and anxiety disorders. "That is because they have someone to turn to and resources to help them get past the crisis," she explains. "The people who may go on to a nervous breakdown are those who don't have emotional support."

It's also more common for individuals who have a physical ailment to be at risk for a nervous breakdown. For instance, she says those who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and new-onset diabetes have a higher risk of having a breakdown.

Diagnosing and Treating Nervous Breakdowns

Diagnosing depression, an anxiety disorder, or a panic attack is highly individual because the symptoms can vary a lot from person to person. Among the red flags to watch for are:

  • Calling in sick for days at a time
  • Avoiding social engagements and skipping appointments
  • Not practicing good sleep, nutrition, and hygiene habits.

"You want the person to get a good explanation for what is going on and a plan for how to proceed," Winston says. Treatment may initially consist of an inpatient stay at a hospital or intensive outpatient therapy. "The person may need to be removed from her environment and taken care of in a psychiatric hospital," Winston says. "If the person is not in danger and it is not an emergency situation, there may be outpatient psychotherapy."

The good news is that there are now many effective treatments, says Simon A. Rego, Psy D, Director of Psychology Training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "An evidence-based form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy is helpful," he says. "There is also a whole range of medications that research has determined can be effective."

For more information, check out the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and the American Psychiatric Association.

Sally Winston, Psy D, reviewed this article.



"Nervous Breakdown: What Does It Mean?" Mayo Clinic.