What Is A Nervous Breakdown – And Could You Be At Risk?

Britney Spears infamously experienced one back in 2007, along with a slew of other celebrities including Amanda Bynes, Mariah Carey, Demi Lovato and Winona Ryder. But what exactly is a nervous breakdown, and how do you know if you’re at risk?

We’ve asked SANE Australia psychologist Suzanne Leckie for her expert opinion on the matter.

What is a nervous breakdown?

When we talk about a nervous breakdown we are generally referring to someone hitting the outer-limit of their ability to cope.  It’s not a clinical term or used as a psychological diagnosis.  It’s more of a layperson’s expression that captures a point of acute distress where we can no longer function and meet our responsibilities.  It can involve an abrupt withdrawal from all work and social activities along with acute emotional distress. 

What are the symptoms? 

A nervous breakdown, or mental health crisis, is likely to include a mix of depression and anxiety symptoms along with very high levels of stress.  These could include a very low mood or extreme mood swings, suicidal thoughts, fatigue and a sense of hopelessness.  There may be panic attacks or a general sense of dread.  The physical symptoms of anxiety may be present which can include tension, trembling, stomach upsets, breathing difficulties and dizziness.  High levels of stress can cause flares of anger or tearful episodes along with a sense of being overwhelmed.

Are there any more subtle signs to watch out for?

“Withdrawing from normal activities, or only being able to deal with the bare essentials, is often sign that all is not well.  Become more emotionally volatile can also indicate that our reserves are running low and we are feeling over-whelmed.”     

What are the risk factors?

Anyone experiencing chronic sustained stress, without adequate breaks or support, could be susceptible to this kind of mental health crisis.  People can often live in this state for long periods without realizing that they are becoming emotionally and physically run-down.  Then a new or unexpected challenge can take them beyond their ability to cope and they find themselves in crisis.  Unexpected or unwanted relationship and employment changes can also bring us to this point.

What is the treatment like?

Sometimes a course of medication is prescribed to help people to stabilise.  Generally, it’s helpful to attend counselling to tease out the factors that lead to the crisis and to learn strategies that will help with recovery and prevention of another episode.

Are there any preventative measures you can take?

Being mindful of your levels of daily stress is a good start.  And incorporating regular breaks, time with loved ones, enjoyable activities and relaxation are all protective of our mental health.  We can’t always prevent sudden changes and loss but we can build up our resilience to these events so that they don’t hit us as hard. 

For information, support and guidance from mental health professionals, contact the SANE Help Centre on 1800 187 263 or email [email protected] from 10am-10pm AEST. The SANE Online Forums at saneforums.org also provide a safe, free and anonymous online platform offering connection and support.

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