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What is a Nervous Breakdown?

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What is a Nervous Breakdown?

In the first episode of the long-running hit CBS show Criminal Minds, FBI profiler Derek Morgan expresses his frustration to his colleague saying, “We've got a woman who's only got a few hours left to live, an incomplete profile, and a unit chief on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

Said unit chief suddenly enters the room explaining, “They don’t call them nervous breakdowns anymore,” before leaving as quickly as he entered.

“It’s called a major depressive episode,” his colleague elaborates.

This first episode of Criminal Minds aired back in September 2005—now almost 16 years ago! Despite the difference in both the quantity and quality of mental health info available now compared to 2005, the use of the term “nervous breakdown” persists in everyday conversations.

Did you know that technically there is no clinical condition called a “nervous breakdown?”

Although a nervous breakdown is not a clinical term or proper medical diagnosis, its use has long existed in colloquial speech. It was widely used to refer to a variety of mental illnesses that were not as understood or diagnosed. Instead, a nervous breakdown was used as an umbrella term that covered conditions in which an individual was undergoing periods of intense pressure or distress. In general, you could think of a nervous breakdown as referring to some mental distress that makes normal activities or functioning difficult.

Today, we’ll take a look at what kinds of symptoms accompany what people consider a nervous breakdown, the origin of the term, causes, and treatment options.


Despite the notable absence of any true diagnosis called a nervous breakdown, many people recognize certain symptoms as being associated with the term. The term usually refers to someone who is experiencing a great deal of stress and anxiety. They could have trouble engaging in normal activities and dealing with things like insomnia and feeling sick to their stomach.

All these symptoms align with typical episodes of intense emotional and mental stress. While this may not be a full list of possible symptoms, common symptoms can include

  • Panic attacks
  • Depressive episodes
  • Insomnia (trouble sleeping)
  • Feeling emotionally spent or numb
  • Feeling physically sick
  • Losing interest in usual activities or hobbies
  • Feeling sluggish
  • Shutting down emotionally
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in appetite
  • Losing or gaining weight without trying
  • Lack of motivation
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Stomachaches

As you might be able to tell, many of these symptoms can be seen in a variety of mental illnesses. This, in part, is why referring to any condition with such symptoms as a nervous breakdown is not an accurate reflection of someone’s condition.

In colloquial use we might say something like, “I was so swamped with projects last week that I had a nervous breakdown.” Of course, most people understand that in this context, nervous breakdown just means that you probably felt very overwhelmed, stressed, and maybe even cried due to extreme stress.

However, some understandings of the meaning can indicate more serious, lasting problems than just a day when you felt very overwhelmed and needed to cry and vent to a friend. Because the symptoms can indicate any number of mental illnesses, it is important to distinguish and give a proper diagnosis to individuals so that they can receive proper treatment. 

Because a mental breakdown isn’t a clinical term or medical diagnosis, there isn’t really any specific treatments for it. However, there is treatment and help available to manage illnesses such as depression or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), for example.

Where Did the Term “Nervous Breakdown” Originate?

The use of the term began early in the 20th century in the United States. Widespread use of the term to diagnose patients or explain mental illness lasted approximately 50-60 years, with the word’s prevalence taking a large dip in the 1960s.

In the first half of the 19th century, the world endured two brutal wars. World Wars I and II left a lasting imprint across the globe and affected many people—physically and mentally—including both soldiers and citizens on the home front.

Sadly, as you probably know, as soldiers returned from war, many developed mental illnesses. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses were suddenly very real issues that needed to be dealt with.

Even today, readjusting to civilian life after a military career can be very difficult for many people. During the early 20th century, research on mental illness was not as developed or understood as it is today. Although we still have a lot to learn about the brain and mental illness, even less was known at the time of the World Wars.

Physicians and psychologists, as you might imagine, needed a term with which to diagnose the many cases of mental illness and distress at the time. The term “nervous breakdown” began to be used to describe these cases in which patients seemed mentally distressed or emotionally disturbed. It was a simple way to easily classify cases, especially since many mental illnesses share similar symptoms.

However, as all things do, the catch-all term of mental breakdown evolved out of a need for better clinical perspective. As the understanding of mental health and mental illness continued to develop throughout the 20th century, physicians began to look more closely at diagnosing patients with a specific mental illness, rather than just relying on the broad diagnosis of nervous breakdown.

In 1952, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual was published. This manual is a handbook that is intended to help diagnose psychiatric disorders. It is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is currently still in use today. The latest version of the manual was released in 2013, having been updated seven times since its initial publication.

The publication of this handbook completely transformed the way physicians were able to diagnose and treat mental illness. Before the release of this manual, broad and insufficient terms such as nervous breakdown were used to diagnose patients. Now, with the availability of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, illnesses such as depression that could’ve been generally classified as a nervous breakdown could be given a more specific diagnosis.

As specific diagnoses began to be used more and more, the terms also began to catch on with the general public. By the 1960s, the use of the term nervous breakdown had decreased and in its place, the names of specific mental illnesses were used instead.

Around that time, the meaning began to shift. Instead of functioning as a specific diagnosis for a mental illness, it began to be used in a more casual manner. Periods of intense stress, especially over specific instances, were referred to as a nervous breakdown. Today, people still use the term nervous breakdown in this less specific manner.

What Causes a Nervous Breakdown?

Although it might not be a specific diagnosis for a condition, you can think of it as something that is often marked by the build-up of stress. There are many factors that can contribute to experiencing what people understand as a nervous breakdown. Underlying mental health problems, for example, can contribute to a nervous breakdown. Other times, it could simply happen once stress reaches a breaking point.

Those contributing factors can include:

  • Mental or physical abuse
  • Academic pressure
  • Pressure in the workplace
  • Death of a close family member or friend
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Losing a job
  • Moving
  • Financial insecurity
  • Divorce

The factor that triggers a nervous breakdown or serves as the straw that broke the camel’s back will differ from person to person. Not everybody experiences the same stresses in life. In addition, your ability to manage stress can also play a big role in the occurrence and magnitude of nervous breakdowns.

If you are someone who has excellent stress management abilities, then stressful events or chronic stress that has been building up over time might not affect you as much. Certainly, you can still feel anxious, and you might worry about meeting a deadline or wonder about what would have happened if you didn’t turn down that job offer. Nevertheless, you deal with your stress in healthy ways and have a solid grasp on coping techniques. It is important to remember that not everybody who is good at managing stress is automatically exempt from ever experiencing a nervous breakdown.

You can have good stress management capabilities and still experience a breakdown. This doesn’t mean that you’ve failed in any way. Some experiences and stressors are just naturally very overwhelming.

On the other side, not everybody is taught or manages stress as well as some people. If you are someone who is not always the best at stress management, you might be more likely to experience a nervous breakdown when stress builds up. Shutting down when things get too overwhelming is something that can result from high levels of stress. Or, if you are more naturally susceptible to stress, you might experience a nervous breakdown that is triggered by something considered more minor.

Nervous Breakdown Care

When you experience symptoms of a nervous breakdown you might be concerned about your health and your mental state. Help is available to you!

Sometimes nervous breakdowns as we know them today don’t require treatment. For example, if you have an important paper for school due tomorrow, and you mistakenly delete your progress and then also get a call that your friend was in a car accident and is in the hospital that same day, you might feel extremely stressed and break down crying, unable to sleep or really eat that night. But over time things improve, your professor gives you an extension on your paper and your friend is recovering well. This is an example of symptoms that are induced by stress and are more of a one-time occurrence.

However, some symptoms of a nervous breakdown, as we’ve discussed previously, could indicate that you have an underlying mental illness that requires treatment. Many mental illnesses were once broadly classified under the label of nervous breakdown. Now with more research and treatment efforts, we have a better understanding and approach to appropriately diagnosing patients.

If you experience frequent nervous breakdowns or have been struggling with symptoms for some time, you should consult a medical professional. A doctor can listen to your symptoms and determine if you have a diagnosable medical illness. By identifying or ruling out possible mental illnesses, a doctor can help you manage your symptoms and treat you properly.

Conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders can be managed and treated through coping strategies, therapy, and medication, or a combination of those options. This is why getting an accurate and proper diagnosis is very important! With a diagnosis, you can find the treatment you need to comfortably live your life without worry about your symptoms. Proper mental health treatment can assist you in moving forward.

At SUN Behavioral Columbus, we recognize the prevalence of mental illness in our society and know the effectiveness of getting treatment. We offer programs for adolescents, adults, and elderly adults. Here at SUN Columbus, you can find the treatment and support you need for mental health disorders and co-occurring disorders. 

We believe in providing a safe atmosphere for all our patients to undergo treatment. Supported by our knowledgeable and passionate staff, our patients will be given an appropriate treatment plan that acknowledges and reflects their needs and concerns. Mental health treatment and support are available! Call us today at 614-706-2786 to speak with a qualified staff member who will help answer any questions or assist you with the admissions process. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens when you have a nervous breakdown?

A nervous breakdown can look different for everybody. Usually, though, if you are experiencing a nervous breakdown you might feel very high levels of anxiety and stress. You might have trouble sleeping, feel as though your stomach is all in knots, and lose your appetite.

How long does it take to recover from a nervous breakdown?

The recovery time frame for a nervous breakdown will also depend on the person. If you are someone with good stress management skills, you can probably get your emotions back in order relatively quickly and might be able to move past stressful situations with more ease.

The time frame will also depend on whether you are experiencing what we casually call a “nervous breakdown” or if you are experiencing an actual diagnosable mental illness. In the first half of the 20th century, the term nervous breakdown was used as an umbrella term for many conditions that we now have a specific diagnosis for. For example, depression and anxiety could have once qualified as a nervous breakdown.

If you have prolonged symptoms that seem to stay with you, even when you are not in the middle of a very high stress situation, you might have an undiagnosed mental disorder. Bring your symptoms and concerns to a doctor who can help evaluate your condition and offer you proper treatment.

What is a nervous breakdown called today?

A nervous breakdown is broken down into many different unique conditions today. Because the term was once used so broadly to describe different mental disorders, the list is quite long. Some notable mental disorders that could have been classified as a nervous breakdown include familiar mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD.

How serious is a nervous breakdown?

The seriousness will depend on the individual experiencing it. If you are experiencing a nervous breakdown due to being in a high-stress situation or environment, the unpleasant feelings will likely pass when you are removed from the stressors. However, that doesn’t make those feelings any easier to endure.

Thus, the question of seriousness is largely a matter of perspective. The stressful feelings and situations that are very challenging for one person may seem minor to another person.

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