What Is A Nervous Breakdown?


Many of us may have experienced a point in our lives where we feel overwhelmed with a task or situation, rendering us unable to do our daily activities. This is called a nervous breakdown (mental breakdown). It’s not a mental health condition but prolonged periods of nervous breakdowns damage your mental well-being and the function of your brain that helps with memory and concentration. You’re not alone, 1 in 8 adults will experience a mental health issue in their life. The more we talk about our mental health, the easier it will be to seek support when we need it. 

Causes of a nervous breakdown 

There’s a wide number of factors that can cause us to have a nervous breakdown and these include:1

  • A major life change – e.g. moving to a new city, a new job, or moving into university halls 
  • Pressure from work 
  • Relationships 
  • Unemployment or financial issues
  • Becoming a parent 
  • Experiencing bereavement 
  • Emotional trauma or loss 

Some people may experience a nervous breakdown that can be different from others. Sometimes a person may experience a big and stressful situation which can trigger a mental breakdown or stress that builds up over time. Sometimes a nervous breakdown can be out of our control and it’s important to recognise the cause of the nervous breakdown and implement coping strategies to prevent it from occurring in the future. 

Signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown

Symptoms of a nervous breakdown may vary between individuals depending on the cause of the nervous breakdown. Some may experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. These symptoms can be physiological (affecting the functioning of the body), psychological (affecting our mind) and behavioural. 

Symptoms of anxiety 

Physiological symptoms

  • Increased heart rate 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating2

Psychological symptoms

  • Difficulty in concentrating 
  • Confusion
  • Frightening thoughts2

Behavioural symptoms

  • Restlessness
  • Trouble speaking
  • Hyperventilation2

Symptoms of depression

Physiological symptoms

  • Change in appetite 
  • Lack of energy
  • Sleep disturbance

Psychological symptoms

  • Feeling guilty 
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy 
  • Having low self-esteem

Behavioural symptoms

  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Self-harming and having suicidal thoughts
  • Withdrawing from social events3 

Whatever you may be feeling, it’s okay to feel that way. These symptoms may vary between individuals and last for days or even months which then begins to affect your daily life. The symptoms listed are not exhaustive and you may not experience all of these. If you experience any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, see a GP for the appropriate care. 

Recognising the difference: nervous breakdown vs. mental illness

A nervous breakdown is not characterised as a mental health condition but as a term used to describe a situation where an emotional crisis is experienced. It’s important to distinguish between a nervous breakdown and a mental illness for a variety of reasons which include: 

  • Avoiding misunderstandings: Despite thousands of us being affected by a mental health condition in our lifetime, there is still a stigma around mental health.It's important that we don’t confuse having a nervous breakdown as a mental health condition as this can ultimately restrict effective communication between healthcare professionals and the public
  • Accurate diagnosis: Sometimes you may experience a temporary nervous breakdown which will usually improve over time with effective coping strategies, however, you may experience symptoms of anxiety and depression for a long period of time. Avoid self-diagnosis and seek professional help to determine a diagnosis so you can be directed to a course of treatment if necessary
  • Improved Support: By understanding your mental health condition, the healthcare professional and your loved ones can provide you with the necessary support to improve your overall well being

Coping strategies for nervous breakdowns

Stress is a major factor in a nervous breakdown and prolonged levels of stress can be detrimental to your mental health. The first step is to recognise what caused a nervous breakdown and seek help if necessary. Could it be too much responsibility from your work? Ask for help and ask if it’s possible to reduce the number of responsibilities you hold at work. By taking the first step, we can take precautions to prevent a nervous breakdown in the future.5 

Poor stress management can lead to being unable to take care of yourself physically and mentally. Having high levels of stress for a long period of time can also affect your concentration levels and memory. Stress can reduce the ability to turn short-term memory into long-term memory making it difficult to learn.6 

Here are some effective mental health coping strategies you can take to improve your mental well-being:

  • Exercise: Studies have proven that exercise has a positive impact on your mood. Regularly exercising has proven to reduce your stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol and boost the production of your ‘happy’ hormones (endorphins)7 

Examples include: running, swimming or strength training

  • Take a deep breath: Breathing techniques is a centuries-old technique used to help reduce stress. Focusing on your breath slows your heart rate down, calms you down and allows you to focus on the present moment. A common technique to adopt is the 4-7-8 breathing method.8 This forces your mind to focus on your breath rather than worrying about your thoughts
    • Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds
    • Hold your breath for 7 seconds 
    • Make a whooshing exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds
    • Repeat 4 times or until you feel relaxed
  • Write it down: Writing down your thoughts and feelings has proven to lessen your worries and provide clarity. It can help you take control of the situation and help you process your emotions and experiences
  • Try and get adequate sleep: Adults need an average of 7-9 hours of sleep to function properly. Poor sleep has been linked to an increase in depression and anxiety. Prioritise sleep by creating a relaxing environment for you to wind down. This could be lighting a candle or reading a book before sleep 

Implementing these coping strategies could help you feel more positive and reduce the occurrence of a nervous breakdown. 

When to seek urgent help?

Seek urgent help if you or someone you know is going through a severe mental health crisis or emergency. An urgent helpline will assess the best course of care and provide you with advice and support at any time. Support services are available to discuss whatever you’re going through without judgement. 

Treatment and prevention for nervous breakdowns

Taking preventative measures may help reduce the severity and occurrence of a nervous breakdown and these include: 

  • Talk therapies 
  • Building relationships with others with similar experiences 
  • Limit coffee, alcohol and tobacco
  • Practice stress management and building resilience9
  • Medications to treat other mental health conditions like anxiety or depression


How long does it take for a person to get over a nervous breakdown?

Everyone is different and some may take longer than others while some are able to manage a nervous breakdown quickly. By practising self-care and seeking professional help and support from family and friends, you can reduce the frequency and severity of a nervous breakdown.

How can you tell if someone has had a nervous breakdown?

There are several signs which include withdrawing from social events, hyperventilation, worrying, and getting angry easily. It’s important to seek urgent help if you or you know someone who may be considering harming themselves.


Most of us may feel stress or anxiety in our lives which may come and go in waves and this is normal. During this, some may experience a minor nervous breakdown which usually resolves quickly. If symptoms persist for an unusually long time and start to affect your daily life, it is best to seek professional help. An example could be talk therapy where you discuss your concerns or worries with a professional privately which may help you notice any patterns you want to change. 

Practising self-care and noticing any possible triggers are some of the ways you can prevent a nervous breakdown. It’s important to recognise that a nervous breakdown is not a mental health condition but rather describes a stressful situation which feels overwhelming to manage. 

There’s still a stigma around our mental health and the aim is to talk more about mental health and educate others and ourselves to avoid misconceptions. This will empower individuals to actively seek professional help and improve their well-being. 


  1. Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol [Internet]. 2005 [cited 2023 Aug 3]; 1:607–28. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2568977/
  2. Chand SP, Marwaha R. Anxiety. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Sep 27]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470361/ 
  3. Chand SP, Arif H. Depression. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Aug 3]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430847/.
  4. Rössler W. The stigma of mental disorders. EMBO Rep [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2023 Aug 3]; 17(9):1250–3. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5007563/.
  5. Algorani EB, Gupta V. Coping Mechanisms. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Aug 3]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559031/.
  6. Schwabe L, Hermans EJ, Joëls M, Roozendaal B. Mechanisms of memory under stress. Neuron [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Aug 3]; 110(9):1450–67. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0896627322001982.
  7. Basso JC, Suzuki WA. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain Plast [Internet]. [cited 2023 Aug 3]; 2(2):127–52. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5928534/.
  8. Aktaş GK, İlgin VE. The effect of deep breathing exercise and 4-7-8 breathing techniques applied to patients after bariatric surgery on anxiety and quality of life. Obes Surg. 2023 Mar;33(3):920–9. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36480101/ 
  9. Nakao M, Shirotsuki K, Sugaya N. Cognitive–behavioral therapy for management of mental health and stress-related disorders: Recent advances in techniques and technologies. Biopsychosoc Med [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2023 Aug 3]; 15:16. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8489050/.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Jessica Tang

Bachelor of Science - BSc Cancer Sciences, University of Nottingham

Jessica holds a Bachelor’s degree in Cancer Sciences with proficiency in bioinformatics and laboratory techniques. Her research project investigated the role of DARPP-32 and the associated genes and signalling pathways in ER+ breast cancer through RNA sequencing.

She is passionate about effectively communicating complex medical information to diverse audiences, bridging the gap between scientific expertise and public understanding. Jessica is an aspiring medical writer and looks forward to opportunities where she can utilise her expertise to drive meaningful change in the healthcare industry.

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