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Are you having a nervous breakdown?

Netdoctor (UK) logo Netdoctor (UK) 3 days ago Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB), words by Abigail Malbon
Medically speaking, there is no such thing as a nervous breakdown. It is an old-fashioned term for somebody who is suffering from an extreme reaction to a stressful situation. Sometimes the term nervous breakdown is used to refer to somebody who is experiencing mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, phobic reactions or even a psychotic episode. © SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images Medically speaking, there is no such thing as a nervous breakdown. It is an old-fashioned term for somebody who is suffering from an extreme reaction to a stressful situation. Sometimes the term nervous breakdown is used to refer to somebody who is experiencing mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, phobic reactions or even a psychotic episode.

Mental health is a bigger talking point than ever, but some people still don't feel able to seek help until they reach crisis point. So at what point should you ask for help and when does mental health become a major concern?

Historically, if someone was in a heightened emotional or physical state which left them unable to function, this was known as a nervous breakdown. The umbrella term refers to a range of mental illnesses from anxiety to a psychotic episode. While the term is no longer widely used in the medical community, burn-out is no less of a concern.

We speak to the experts to find out what the warning signs are, how to know if someone is going through a breakdown, and what to do if someone is in need:

What is a nervous breakdown?

Medically speaking, there is no such thing as a nervous breakdown. 'It is an old-fashioned term for somebody who is suffering from an extreme reaction to a stressful situation,' explains Reenee Singh, psychotherapist and spokesperson from the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

'Sometimes the term nervous breakdown is used to refer to somebody who is experiencing mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, phobic reactions or even a psychotic episode.

'Normal family life events, such as getting married, having a baby, moving home or retiring could trigger extreme reactions in those who are vulnerable, which could be described as nervous breakdown,' she adds.

Nervous breakdown symptoms

According to Singh symptoms vary depending for the individual, but any extreme behaviour that is unusual should be monitored, and the person should seek help if necessary.

'The symptoms could include insomnia, apathy, lack of appetite, constant crying, low libido, suicidal ideation or, even in more severe signs such as paranoid delusions or manic behaviour,' says Singh.

What does a nervous breakdown feel like?

Fiona Thomas, author of Depression in a Digital Age, believes her breakdown occurred as a result of trying to juggle too many things at once.

• Fiona's story

'I had a bad case of burnout which went undiagnosed for a year or so,' says Thomas. 'This all went untreated and I was diagnosed with depression in 2012. My brain was completely broken to the point where I was screaming at my team (I was a manager at the time) for absolutely no reason and even drove on the wrong side of the road at one point without even realising.

'When I eventually took two weeks off things just got worse. The time to rest just made my mind and body give up completely and I was unable to carry out simple tasks, take phone calls, get dressed or get showered. I ended up being off work for almost a year and quit my job in the process.'

Thomas has now recovered, but it took discovering what truly made her happy to get there. 'A huge part of recovery for me has been processing my emotions and having a blog was a game-changer for me. Creative writing let me express myself more succinctly can I ever could through conversation and that led me to not only be more open about my mental illness but actually own it and learn to accept it as apart of my life.'

• Ann's story

Meanwhile Ann* believes her breakdown had been building since her younger years. 'I had a tough childhood,' she explains. 'My mother was in an abusive relationship with a same-sex partner and had alcohol issues throughout my teens. When I was 16, she was incarcerated and my father took his own life that year.

'I had my only child at 22, started my own business at 23, and by 25, when everything was seemingly going well in my life, I felt like on the inside my entire world was falling apart. It was a very strange experience, I felt like all of my emotions were extremely heightened and I had periods of feeling extremely suicidal.

'Although it was a destructive period it was also the beginning of a spiritual journey for me. My perspective on life changed entirely.

'I was diagnosed with bipolar mid-breakdown and given medication but the medication didn’t seem to react well with me, and so I was subsequently undiagnosed and haven’t been on any medication since. My diagnosis now is borderline personality disorder, I just about manage it myself but I have had breakdowns since. However I’m much more aware now when I’m having one, and I’ve learnt ways to cope - just about!'

*Names have been changed.

What to do if someone has a breakdown

Singh recommends the following advice for anyone who might be suffering:

✔️ If you suspect that someone is having a "breakdown" or experiencing mental health difficulties, you should call your GP in the first instance, and make an appointment.

✔️ Your GP will often refer the person to the local child and adolescent or adult mental health services and/or will prescribe medication.

✔️ You could approach organisations like the United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapy (UKCP) or the Association of Family Therapy and Systemic Practice (AFT) for more specialised help.

✔️ If a relative or friend is in distress and their symptoms are quite mild for example crying and low mood, it is helpful to stay with them and listen to them until they are feeling better. You could help them by distracting them with an activity such as watching a film, exercise or yoga.

✔️ However, if symptoms are more severe -restlessness, agitation, panic attacks, incoherent speech, suicidal talk - it is essential that they see a mental health professional.

Mental breakdown treatment options

There is no blanket treatment, as every individual is different so your first port of call should always be the GP. Singh outlines the following treatment options:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
  • Medication
  • Supportive psychotherapy
  • Psychotherapeutic counselling
  • Family and systemic psychotherapy is very useful, especially if the person's symptoms are linked to an event in the family or difficulties in family relationships, as is often the case.

When should you seek medical assistance?

Your GP should be your first port of call but sometimes a severe mental health crisis may require assessment in a local hospital's emergency department or in a potentially life threatening situation, calling an ambulance.

'Providing emotional support is helpful but in severe cases often not enough, and there is no need to feel embarrassed by asking for further assistance,' says Counselling Directory member Peter Klein.

'If you are suffering from persistent mental distress such as low mood - without it being an adequate reaction to something like a break-up, for example - then it may be the right time to seek help from a healthcare professional,' he adds. 'If in doubt, always seek support earlier rather than later. Mental health problems are much easier to address when less severe.'

Can you prevent a breakdown?

Mental health problems fall under such a broad spectrum that it's difficult to recommend a preventative method that fits all scenarios, but as a rule of thumb people who regularly practise self-care are better prepared to maintain positive mental health.

'Self-care to prevent experiencing a nervous breakdown can include regular exercise, engaging in hobbies or pleasurable activities, practising yoga and mindfulness, talking to family and friends, and speaking to a psychotherapist if necessary,' suggests Klein.

Mental health support

If you think you (or someone close to you) might be suffering from a mental breakdown or you have any concerns about your mental health, the first port of call should be your GP. For additional support, try one of the following resources:

  • Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
  • The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
  • Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
  • CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.
  • Glyde.co: telephone and video calling therapy sessions.

Last updated: 03-12-19

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