How to Tell If You Are Having a
Nervous Breakdown
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June 8, 2011, last updated January 26, 2015

By Louise Carr, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

Would you notice your best friend or your partner was on
the verge of a nervous breakdown? How about your boss,
or your child’s teacher? The term "nervous breakdown" is
generally used to describe crisis – you have ceased to
function normally, you’ve reached rock bottom, you are
experiencing a lack of mental control. But someone on the
brink of “burnout” may not act exactly as you’d expect. In
fact, "nervous breakdown" covers a huge variety of
experiences. We are all individual, and we all hit the lows in
slightly different ways. Are there symptoms of nervous
breakdown? How can you know if it’s happening to you?

According to a 1999 study from Indiana University, 26
percent of Americans say they have felt on the verge of a
nervous breakdown, an increase of 7 percent since a similar
study from 40 years ago. One in 10 Americans report
depression, according to the Centers For Disease Control
and Prevention, and two percent of these people will suffer
from severe major depressive disorder each year (National
Institute of Mental Health). The average age of onset is 32
years old. And according to Mental Health Foundation in the
UK, one in 20 people in Britain will suffer from clinical
depression – a disabling mental disorder that includes
nervous breakdown.

What Causes a Nervous Breakdown?

A variety of things can cause a nervous breakdown, and they
may be linked or occur separately. A traumatic event can
trigger a nervous breakdown, or a traumatic event on top of
already high levels of stress. Stress and anxiety may also
cause a nervous breakdown, particularly if you are stressed
and anxious over a long period of time. In this case, the
“drip drip” effect of stress becomes suddenly too much to
bear – you have literally reached your limit. Some people are
highly adept at carrying on and bearing increasing amounts
of pressure but it could be said that these people are not the
healthy ones – it sometimes takes a nervous breakdown to
completely change a persistent negative state and a nervous
breakdown can eventually work out to be a positive
occurrence. (Read more about
foods, spices and other tips
to combat stress.)

It’s worth remembering that the terms nervous breakdown
and mental breakdown aren’t technically medical terms. You
could also call your condition severe or major depression,
anxiety attack or panic attack. Of course, debating the
technical term is far from useful when you’re in the throes of
a serious and debilitating breakdown. What’s more
important is understanding what’s happening to you and
knowing that you are not “going crazy”, dying or having a
heart attack. How can you tell if you’re having a nervous
breakdown? What are the signs of a nervous breakdown?
When should you call for professional help?

10 Signs You Are Having a Nervous Breakdown

The symptoms of a nervous breakdown may have built up
slowly and insidiously over time, or they may strike you
completely out of the blue. Many people feel they are
growing increasingly more stressed and agitated while
others continue to cope until they “break down”.

A Change of Mood Can Signify a Nervous Breakdown

It’s tricky to pin down a nervous breakdown by looking at a
change in mood because both extremes of mood can signify
a breakdown – a highly agitated mood or a very flat mood.
According to a 2009 study from The Canberra Hospital,
Canberra, Australia major depressive illness – of which a
nervous breakdown is one manifestation – has objective
physical signs that occur with consistency. They are either
characterized by retardation of movement, diminished
gestures and lack of expressions – a persistent low or “flat”
state of mind, or by severe restlessness and agitation,
muscle tension and persistent wringing of hands. You may
not be able to stop talking, or you might not want to say
anything at all.

Irritability and Anger Can Be The Sign Of A Nervous

Sometimes, a nervous breakdown comes with aggression
and anger. A 1997 study from Columbia University, New
York, looking at nervous breakdown and panic attacks
among the US Hispanic population, showed that sufferers
who had a nervous breakdown and also symptoms of
affective disorder (bipolar disorder or manic behavior)
demonstrated a tendency towards aggressive behavior,
screaming and breaking things during their breakdown.

Loss of Pleasure And Enthusiasm For Life Can Be a Sign of
a Breakdown

We all go through short phases of feeling bored with our
day-to-day life and unable to get enthusiastic about much.
But if the feelings persist for more than a few days, or they
leave you sitting in the house without wanting to go out, or
lying in bed with no purpose, it could signify the start of a
nervous breakdown. People in the midst of a breakdown
may stop taking part in their regular hobbies, cancel social
dates, lose interest in activities that were previously
pleasurable, like sex, and generally withdraw from normal
life. 2010 research from the University of Freiburg in
Germany showed people with depression have greater
difficulty detecting black and white contrast differences –
effectively, the world seems more gray. Depressed people,
according to the researchers, are less able to perceive
contrasts in the world, which in turn may make the world
look a less interesting and pleasurable place.

Panic, Fears and Phobias May Be Signs of a Nervous

A 1997 study from Columbia University, New York that
looked at nervous breakdown and panic attacks among the
US Hispanic population, found people suffering from nervous
breakdown and a panic disorder expressed a sense of
asphyxiation, a fear of dying, and demonstrated a growing
sense of general fear during their breakdown. If you are
having a psychotic breakdown you may hear voices from
people who are not there, or see visions of things that don’t

Irrational or Persistently Negative Thoughts Can Signal
Nervous Breakdown

Irrational fears, and the inability to stop thinking about
them, could signal a nervous breakdown.

According to 2011 research from the University of Miami and
Stanford University, people with major depression can’t get
away from their condition because they are unable to turn
their attention away from negative thoughts. The research
looked at 26 people with depression and 27 people without
depression and asked them to remember the order of words
flashed onto a computer screen. Those with depression had
problems reordering the words in their head, particularly if
the words had a negative meaning.

The words, and thoughts, get stuck in the head. Like a
broken record. This can be a sign of an impending
breakdown and is also a characteristic of depression.

Exhaustion, Inability to Sleep or Sleeping Too Much: All
Possible Signs

Some people suffering a mental breakdown simply cannot
sleep – worries, stress, anxiety and negative thoughts
whirring through the brain prevent relaxation and cause
insomnia. However, it could also work the other way.
Excessive tiredness and sleepiness during the day can be a
first sign of a breakdown. A 2010 study from Robert Wood
Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. found that
high school seniors who experienced excessive daytime
sleepiness had a higher risk of depression. High school
seniors were three times more likely to show strong
symptoms of depression if they were excessively sleepy
during the day. People who complain of exhaustion over the
space of weeks or months may be making their way along
the road to eventual breakdown.

The Outward Signs of Nervous Breakdown

Nervous or mental breakdown is not only signaled by mental
signs. A 2009 study from The Canberra Hospital, Canberra,
Australia showed major depressive illness to be
characterized by tachycardia, a dry tongue or mouth, sweaty
palms, cold clammy skin, tremors, and fluctuations in blood
pressure. Other physical symptoms, that can be so intense
that you feel you are having a heart attack or dying, include
dizziness, muscle pain and muscle spasms, pale skin, and

The Inner Physical Signs of a Nervous Breakdown

It may not be obvious to anyone else, but disruptions in the
inner workings of your body can be a sign of a nervous
breakdown. According to psychotherapist Gael Lindenfield in
the book “Positive Under Pressure” bowel-related problems,
constipation and diarrhea, could be the sign of mental
breakdown. Many people on the verge of a breakdown
report suffering back pain or
migraines, breathing problems,
disrupted menstrual cycle and
heart palpitations.

Lack of Energy Can Signal Nervous Breakdown

A 2007 report from Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick,
Australia describes decades of research into nervous
breakdown. That report found that people who are suffering
from a breakdown describe their state as a “mechanical
failure”, an inability to move from the bed, to get up, to
wash, to walk across the room.

Many people suffering a nervous breakdown describe feeling
like they are wading through treacle, or thick sand.

Everything takes longer and the sensation is like a heavy
weight on the shoulders. Lack of energy and a sensation of
weightiness can both signify an impending breakdown.

So, if you feel like you're walking in mud as you try to make
it through the day, see a doctor to be screened for

Worry and Anxiety And Nervous Breakdown

This may sound obvious, but a nervous breakdown can be
characterized by feelings of worry, anxiety and guilt.
Sufferers may feel overwhelmed, confused, trapped, plagued
by worry and out of control. In fact, a nervous breakdown
can be seen as just that – a complete loss of control that can
manifest itself in many ways. (Read more about
tips to
reduce anxiety.)

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