Millions of people are struggling with mental health conditions. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 19% of U.S. adults experience anxiety disorders each year, and one in every 20 adults has a serious mental illness. The pandemic didn’t help things, either. According to the World Health Organization, the situational effects of COVID-19 triggered a 25% worldwide increase in anxiety and depression.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental breakdown, you’re not alone. Mental breakdowns can occur from various stressors such as work, personal relationships, and financial issues. Fortunately, there are things you can do each day to overcome these challenges and prevent them from reoccurring.
In this article, learn the strategies for recovering from a mental breakdown to better cope when difficulties arise.
What Is a Nervous Breakdown?
A period of mental distress is referred to as a “mental breakdown” or a “nervous breakdown.” When things in one’s life become so overwhelming, physical and psychological symptoms can result, triggering a downward spiral of mental well-being over time. While nervous breakdowns can vary from person to person, those experiencing them generally have difficulty functioning in daily life during this time.
Nervous breakdowns can be triggered by multiple factors. Sudden tragedies, financial problems, work burnout, and lack of sleep are just a few things that can contribute to mental health conditions. The term “nervous breakdown” isn’t an official diagnosis, but it’s recognized within the mental health community, and fortunately, there are resources for both recovery and prevention.
How Long Does a Mental Breakdown Last?
When dealing with depression, anxiety, and other issues, one might ask, “How long do nervous breakdowns last?” The answer can vary depending on the situation and health condition of the individual. Some mental breakdowns can last for days, while a serious emotional shutdown can go on for weeks or even longer. The longer the issue persists, the more serious the mental health crisis. In such cases, seeking a health professional is usually the best option.
Panic Attacks vs. Nervous Breakdowns
Panic attacks and nervous breakdowns are two different conditions. With a panic attack, you’re hit with a sudden and very intense wave of fear when no actual threat is present. This can cause severe physical and mental reactions that last anywhere from five to twenty minutes.
Conversely, nervous breakdowns are related to prolonged anxiety and can occur over days or even weeks. While someone with a panic attack can generally resume day-to-day tasks normally, nervous breakdowns can have a dramatic effect on a person’s ability to function over time. In some cases, panic attacks are symptoms of a nervous breakdown.
“Both panic attacks and anxiety attacks are treatable . . . but treating anxiety attacks and panic attacks require different approaches,” explains Emma McAdam, a licensed therapist and the host of Therapy in a Nutshell.
Signs of a Nervous Breakdown
Discerning whether a person’s symptoms are part of a mental breakdown or from typical behaviors can be difficult. However, the National Alliance of Mental Illness shares several common signs of a nervous breakdown to watch for:
- You feel deeply sad or low.
- You’ve lost a sense of reality.
- You have difficulty relating to others.
- You find yourself worrying excessively.
- You’re engaging in behaviors you’d usually find risky.
- You feel anxiety after eating.
- You avoid friends and social activities you typically enjoy.
- You’re suddenly overly concerned about your appearance.
- You’re experiencing physical issues (like headaches and stomach aches) without a clear cause.
- You suffer from uncontrollable crying.
While the signs of a mental breakdown may be clear, advocating for your needs can be difficult to do. “You feel that you have no choice so you put on the acting face and you go in there as if everything’s wonderful and underneath is just nothing but a very, very, runny, wobbly jelly,” shares one person in an interview with Only Human.
What Causes Mental Breakdowns?
“When people refer or describe themselves as having a nervous breakdown, what it really means is that they’ve reached the end of their rope in terms of their coping skills and coping mechanism.”Dr. Eric lifshitz
Everyone handles stress differently. What may be manageable to one person could be entirely overwhelming to another. Mental breakdown symptoms begin when a person’s coping skills can no longer manage depression, anxiety, and the external stress productively. Causes of mental breakdowns can vary, but the Cleveland Clinic shares some general triggers that often act as culprits, leading to a mental health crisis.
Common triggers and risk factors for mental breakdowns:
- Loss of sleep or mental exhaustion
- Persistent work burnout
- Toxic personal relationships
- Worsening medical conditions
- Family history of anxiety disorders
- Existing psychiatric condition worsening due to ongoing stress
- Sudden tragedy (like the death of a loved one, divorce, or foreclosure)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
How to Recover From a Mental Breakdown
“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.”bessel A. van der kolk
Mental breakdowns are serious. If you or someone you know is battling mental illness, it’s important to seek help as you learn how to deal with mental breakdowns. There are dozens of resources and support methods available. It’s just a matter of finding the right strategy for you. However, no matter the strategy, addressing the root of the problem—the actual trigger—is also vital.
Helpful strategies for overcoming mental breakdown symptoms:
- Go to therapy or counseling under the guidance of a qualified health professional
- Establish a bedtime routine for optimal rest and recovery
- Practice journaling and self-reflection in a wellness journal
- Use mental health apps, like Bloom for CBT therapy exercises
- Ground yourself by walking along the beach or in the grass barefoot
- Try negative thought reframing and tracking (helpful for identifying deep triggers)
- Create and maintain a daily schedule (promotes a sense of control and eliminates surprises)
Strategies for Preventing Mental Breakdowns
“The moment you have a certain thought and believe it, you will experience an immediate emotional response. Your thought actually creates the emotion.”Dr. David D. Burns
Rather than avoiding problems and only using coping strategies to help with depression, anxiety, and other issues, preventing mental breakdowns also requires leaning into them. As psychologist, author, and teacher of Buddhism Jack Kornfield says in A Path with Heart, “The unawakened mind tends to make war against the way things are. To follow a path with heart, we must understand the whole process of making war within ourselves and without, how it begins and how it ends.”
Preventing mental breakdowns means using visualization to understand your emotions, work through them, and then let them go. Only in this way can you learn to both recognize your emotions and prevent them from taking over. Doing this with other lifestyle strategies of self-care can help keep you calm and grounded, even in the face of adversity.
Tips for reducing and preventing nervous breakdowns:
- Take care of your body: This means getting enough sleep, eating healthy, reducing alcohol consumption, and exercising.
- Gain organization and control: Establishing a daily routine or schedule can help restore a sense of control and eliminate the potential for surprises or negative setbacks.
- Practice relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises, yoga classes, sound bowl healing, and meditation can all be instrumental in keeping your mind calm and grounded.
Preventing mental breakdowns can be a heavy undertaking, but you don’t have to do it alone. Find a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional who can support you in your efforts.
Low-Cost Resources for Mental Health Support
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental health stigmas are one of the biggest reasons people don’t seek mental health support. Another large reason is cost. In a 2021 NAMI Mood Disorder Survey, 48% of respondents cited eligibility questions as a top deterrent for seeking care, while 41% cited the costs for those services as the main issue.
When the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) was passed, access to mental health care became more available. According to Healthinsurance.org, before the ACA, those with mental health conditions often had to pay out of pocket for care or faced enrollment denials or higher premiums. Now, mental and behavioral health services are included in all insurance plans without limitations and are considered essential health benefits.
Access to mental health care doesn’t need to cost a fortune. You can seek many affordable options, both inside and outside of an insurance plan.
Affordable options for mental health care:
- Use GoodRx to find an affordable telehealth provider.
- Find a local therapist who is in-network so you only pay your copay.
- Use the Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator to find free community resources.
- Online services, like Talkspace or BetterHelp, can be a cheaper option if you don’t have insurance.
Read 5 Reasons Health Insurance Is So Expensive for more insight on health insurance costs.
If you’re having troubling or harmful thoughts and need immediate help, dial 988 to speak with the National Suicide Prevention hotline.
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- National Alliance on Mental Illness, June 2022, https://nami.org/mhstats?gclid=Cj0KCQjwteOaBhDuARIsADBqRegbbviR0-y4pL3VxY4w3emvZp6ZQlVGz3ydaCiXq_O7AKAt9Qe88oIaAtUfEALw_wcB.
- 9480, +41. “COVID-19 Pandemic Triggers 25% Increase in Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression Worldwide.” World Health Organization, 2 Mar. 2022, https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide.
- “5 Signs Of A Nervous Breakdown.” YouTube, 6 Sept. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1UoB9L6mNs.
- “What’s the Difference Between Panic Attacks, Anxiety Attacks, and Panic Disorder? 1/3 Panic Attacks.” YouTube, 30 Dec. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lp2jgkoVLys.
- Warning Signs and Symptoms. https://nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Warning-Signs-and-Symptoms.
- “What Are The Symptoms of a Mental Breakdown? The Day I Snapped (Mental Health Doc) | Only Human.” YouTube, 17 Sept. 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZVyuGb81MM.
- “Nervous Breakdown Treatment.” YouTube, 24 June 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8CViO0myRM.
- “Nervous Breakdown (Mental Health Crisis).” Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22780-nervous-breakdown. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022.
- Divinity, Jeremy. Never Be Ashamed Of Seeking Help, https://www.nami.org/Personal-Stories/Never-Be-Ashamed-of-Seeking-Help#:~:text=Mental%20health%20stigma%20is%20a,to%20feeling%20shame%20and%20embarrassed.
- 2021 Mood Disorder Survey. National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2021, https://nami.org/Support-Education/Publications-Reports/Survey-Reports/2021-Mood-Disorder-Survey.
- Norris, Louise. “How Obamacare Improved Mental Health Coverage | Healthinsurance.Org.” Healthinsurance.Org, 13 Nov. 2020, https://www.healthinsurance.org/obamacare/how-obamacare-improved-mental-health-coverage/.
- “Anxiety Doctor Online: Treatment Options & Anti-Anxiety Medication.” GoodRx, https://www.goodrx.com/treatment/anxiety. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022.
- Home – SAMHSA Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator. 28 Oct. 2022, https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/.
- “This Could Be Why You’re Depressed or Anxious | Johann Hari.” YouTube, 11 Oct. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MB5IX-np5fE.