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Spotting Nervous Breakdown Symptoms

Mark Tyrrell
Article by Mark Tyrrell
Therapist trainer of 25 years
Co-founder of Hypnosis Downloads

7 tips to identify a nervous breakdown and get you back on your feet

"She's had a nervous breakdown!" Half whispers, hushed tones, fear; something strange, to my young mind, had happened to "the woman down the street at number 36." I had no idea what a nervous breakdown was or what the symptoms were, but I sensed it was an awful, mysterious, terrifying thing. Maybe I, at seven, would have a nervous breakdown! Or perhaps my parents would.

The neighbour disappeared for weeks and, to my shame, when she eventually reappeared I avoided her for a while, fearing what I didn't understand.

Actually, many adults don't really know what a nervous breakdown is either, because the term itself is a popular but not clinical diagnosis. It's a metaphor. Cars 'break down', people don't; in the same way that people don't really 'let off steam' or 'recharge their batteries'. So what do we mean when we say that someone had a breakdown?

Symptoms of a nervous breakdown

A nervous breakdown really means the point of exhaustion reached after a prolonged period of anxiety (perhaps related to relationship, financial, health, or work worries; often a combination). The overwhelming anxiety, depression, and stress leads to a sense of overwhelm, helplessness, and utter exhaustion; a feeling of not being able to deal with life or even get out of bed.

Sometimes a one-off event such as a job loss or bereavement may be the catalyst for this build up of exhausting stress. On top of that stress, the person suffering the breakdown may have stopped sleeping and eating properly - both of which contribute to yet more exhaustion. Other symptoms of a nervous breakdown include:

  • Loss of interest in sex.
  • Loss of interest in food.
  • Loss of enjoyment in hobbies, work, and life generally.
  • Feelings of guilt. The sufferer may feel guilty or 'pathetic' for feeling this way - which, in turn, makes them feel even worse.
  • Feeling that even the smallest task is way too exhausting or difficult.
  • Feelings of aloneness.
  • Feelings of desperation.

Once people have experienced a nervous breakdown, they may get impatient with themselves, lose confidence, and, not surprisingly, fear it may all happen again.

If you feel a build up of stress, over time, led to you having a nervous breakdown, then take time to read these tips, as they'll help you feel confident that you can feel strong again and know what to do if it ever starts happening again.

1) Reduce the pressure by talking to someone

If you feel you've suffered some of the symptoms of a nervous breakdown, then you may have been feeling very alone. It's vital that you talk to someone who is sympathetic, whether that's your doctor, a trusted family member or friend, or a good therapist. So many people suffer in silence or feel they 'don't want to be a burden', but your health is vital and we all need a helping hand sometimes. In fact, helping one another is what makes us human; so asking for help is one way of enabling someone else to realize some of their own humanity.

2) Prioritize your body's needs

A build up of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood stream (1) can play havoc with your appetite. Make a point of eating nutritiously and regularly, eating plenty of vegetables and protein, whether you feel like eating or not. Without proper nutrition, any one of us will feel as if we've 'ground to a halt'.

Take very small amounts of exercise even if, at first, it's just to walk around the block. Small amounts of physical movement will help increase energy bit by bit. The woman who'd suffered a nervous breakdown in my neighbourhood all those years ago had apparently not left her house for months. Make sure you get outside for at least twenty minutes a day, as you need the vitamin D in sunlight (even on a cloudy day) to help stabilize your mood and help improve your night time sleep patterns.

3) Be fair on your self

One man who'd had a breakdown told me how he'd always demanded the absolute best from himself and everyone around him and now he couldn't stand it that even walking to the local store felt beyond him. I suggested that perfectionism itself was a trap and that this man's future life could perhaps be approached with more flexibility. Expectations need to expand and contract in life as circumstances change. When this man learned to give himself a break and feel okay about not being able to live at one hundred miles per hour (at least until he was feeling better), then he could really get the worry-free rest his mind and body so badly needed.

If someone had just run their first marathon, it might be unreasonable to try to force them to sprint down to the local store and back - they need to rest. And if you've had a nervous breakdown, don't expect too much of yourself for a while, because you need to rest and recuperate.

4) Relaxation is the key to recovery

Stopping for a while and taking time to relax when you feel things are getting too much will gradually allow your body and mind to start to feel refreshed and reenergized again. Regular relaxation will also help 'reset' your sleeping patterns, which will help reduce your stress levels greatly.

Regular relaxation changes the way you think and feel about everything. Whilst emotions are continuously whipped up just like sand in a storm, it's harder to see clearly. But right now, relaxation has to be a priority. How do you relax? If you answer: "I don't!", then a nervous breakdown was, perhaps, inevitable.

There are many ways to relax, from having a massage to gardening to listening to relaxation hypnosis sessions.

5) Divide and conquer your problems

When we see all our problems as one big mass, it feels overwhelming. The fact is, for a while, problems need to be ignored or, if you do have to start addressing them, then they need to be addressed one at a time.

But the main problem you need to address right now is the way that you feel mentally and physically. If a car needs re-tuning, that takes priority over where you need to drive it.

Take your time. When you are feeling rough is not the time to make big decisions or plans - in the same way that if we were going to launch a small boat we'd need to wait until the water is calm enough before we can set sail.

I think one of the major symptoms of a nervous breakdown is a sense of not being able to cope effectively - a feeling of being swamped by problems. Decide not to decide for a while. And when you do get back into problem-solving mode, then make a point of focusing on one difficulty at a time. Divide your problems and eventually you'll conquer them.

6) Ask yourself: What's going to be different in future?

A nervous breakdown is a signal that your life the way it was just wasn't working for you. Now you have an opportunity to determine what exactly you want to be different in your future life so that living healthily can become sustainable. Maybe you'll focus more on relationships or perhaps spend more time outdoors or even take up interests that you used to enjoy but haven't made the time for in years.

As they say: no one reaches the end of their life and wishes they'd spent more time in the office. How do you want your life to be from here on?

7) Imagine a positive future and set yourself boundaries

Every day, take a few moments to strongly envisage how you're going to be when you have renewed energy and confidence. How you'll begin to enjoy those little things in life, such as meeting up with a friend for a coffee, going shopping, spending time with your family, or taking a walk on a sunny day, just like you used to.

When you feel more relaxed, you will also be able to put up boundaries so you don't overwork and set yourself limits so that you don't have to deal with a breakdown again. As you start to feel calmer, things that you currently find difficult to do will slowly become easier.

Just remember that right now you have just gone off-track slightly and you just need to stop for a while to return back to the 'real you'. With this rest and revitalization, you'll begin to see a brighter future.

As for that woman at number 36 all those years ago, I recall seeing her looking happy and strong not that long after she'd had that breakdown. To my relieved young mind, she'd bounced back and from then on the term 'nervous breakdown' no longer felt so threatening - to me, at least.


  1. Though depressed people often present as 'flat' and inactive, their blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol are much higher than normal. See: Nemeroff, C. B. (1998) The neurobiology of depression. Scientific American, 278,6, 28-35.
Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Stress Management