What is Mental Breakdown?

The term "mental breakdown" is a concept that's now in disuse. Find out which diagnoses replace it and how it can be treated.
What is Mental Breakdown?
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 10 February, 2023

The term mental breakdown or nervous breakdown has been used for decades to refer to episodes of intense mental or emotional distress. As the experts point out, it arose around 1920 and was used to describe phenomena and diagnoses unknown at that time. Acute stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or depression are more appropriate concepts today.

Certainly, today there’s no such thing as a diagnosis of a nervous breakdown or a mental breakdown. It’s not included in any international manual, nor is it part of medical jargon. However, it’s still very present in the population, so today, we’ll objectively address its symptoms, its causes, and what options exist to treat it.

Symptoms of a mental breakdown

Researchers point out that the symptoms of what’s popularly known as a mental breakdown are very varied. Depending on its nature, the affected person may manifest symptoms of a panic disorder, affective disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder (among many others).

There’s no clinical picture equal to another, as the context and the trigger affect the signs presented by the patient. Keep in mind that a mental breakdown isn’t a formal diagnosis, neither in psychology nor in different disciplines of medicine.

Despite this, we’ll leave you with some traits that many patients develop when they suffer from what is informally known as a mental breakdown.

Emotional or psychological symptoms

Mental breakdown has various symptoms.
Usually, the psychological symptoms of mental breakdown are the most striking and disabling.

A mental breakdown can cause both physical and emotional symptoms. We’ll start with the latter, although it’s important to consider that both are closely related. Let’s see a compilation of the main ones:

  • Sudden mood swings (with a tendency toward anguish, sadness, hopelessness, guilt, and others)
  • Loss of interest in carrying out activities
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • Low self-esteem
  • Extreme emotional turmoil (with an inclination to flee or protect oneself)
  • Delusions and hallucinations
  • Lack of insight
  • Paranoia (which translates into distrusting others)
  • Extreme fear
  • Nightmares (which can lead to insomnia and other sleep disorders )
  • Feelings of helplessness

This is just a selection of psychological symptoms of mental breakdowns. There may be more in particular cases, as each episode is different. In short, a sign shared by many patients with this type of emotional imbalance is excessive stress.

As we’ll see shortly, stress triggers a series of emotional and physical responses that can severely disrupt a person’s well-being.

Physical symptoms

The body also reacts during a mental breakdown and can do so in such a way that the patient may believe that they’re experiencing a cardiac or pulmonary event. Let’s look at some common signs during an episode that initially remains indeterminate:

  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Muscle tension or stiffness
  • Stomach ache
  • Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
  • Cold sweating
  • Labored breathing
  • Acceleration of heart rate
  • Blurry vision
  • Unforeseen tears
  • Muscle tremors
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Frequent infections (and with it their symptoms: Malaise, headaches, fever, and others)
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased blood pressure

We reiterate that a mental breakdown is very confusing, which is why the terms described are so diverse. It’s not necessary for patients to manifest all these physical and psychological symptoms so that a picture can be understood by a few of them.

Causes of mental breakdown

A mental breakdown at work.
Work environments tend to be one of the main triggers of mental breakdown in the younger and more productive population.

Chronic stress or acute stress disorder are often the culprits behind this type of episode. Both are different conditions, although they can lead to the same consequences.

Chronic stress refers to prolonged or long-term exposure to potentially stressful situations. Acute stress disorder is a reaction that occurs immediately after a stressful event.

Both episodes can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, another possible objective diagnosis of a mental breakdown. Stress is a very complex phenomenon. It’s a natural reaction that’s present in human beings and almost all living beings to face situations of threat, danger, or survival.

In the specific case of humans, the response originates in the sympathetic nervous system and in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

In this process, many messengers are secreted to control the body’s functions, including cortisol. This is known as the stress hormone, and it can circumstantially alter immune, metabolic, and psychological functions.

Ultimately, almost every system in the body is altered to prepare for flight or fight.

Scientists have found that the brains of people who’ve been exposed to high-stress situations are more sensitive to cortisol and other hormones, so a mildly stressful event can trigger a potentially exaggerated response. Almost all mental breakdowns have stress as their trigger. Let’s look at some triggers for this:

  • The loss of a loved one
  • Financial and academic difficulties
  • The end of a romantic relationship
  • Abuse episodes
  • Traumas from the past
  • Prolonged insomnia
  • Isolation and social rejection
  • The diagnosis of chronic or degenerative diseases

Of course, these are just a few examples, as any type of situation can cause symptoms of what’s popularly known as mental collapse.

Those with underlying psychiatric illnesses (diagnosed or undiagnosed) are prone to imbalances of this type. Each case requires a personalized diagnosis, which is taken as a reference for treatment.

Mental breakdown treatment

The first reaction to a nervous breakdown or mental breakdown is to stabilize the patient. The symptoms can be so severe that there’s a risk of harming others or harming yourself.

Fortunately, most episodes of this type are brief and relatively easy to control. Once it has been addressed by health professionals, you can choose to treat the current symptoms on an outpatient basis or opt for hospitalization.

Depending on your possible triggers and a specialist’s criteria, you can opt for the following:

  • Medication intake (antidepressants, anxiolytics, and others).
  • Psychotherapy (with an inclination for cognitive behavioral therapy).
  • Diet changes.
  • Regular physical exercise.
  • Avoid catalysts that cause stress in the patient (too much pressure, responsibilities, and so on).
  • Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake.
  • Follow a schedule or daily patterns to do things (eat, sleep, and so on).
  • Increase the activities that are done with the inner circle (and on the contrary, avoid isolation).
  • Join support groups.

Each episode is different, so each therapy and approach is personal. A mental breakdown can often be prevented by applying the above life changes, so much so that the prognosis is very positive. If there are underlying disorders or diseases that are causing the reaction, they’ll be controlled according to professional criteria.

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