7 signs of a mental breakdown

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi
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Most of us feel stressed or overwhelmed sometimes, but if you’re feeling very distressed or your mental health is affecting your day-to-day, then you may want to reach out for help

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If you’ve ever felt on the verge of a mental breakdown, you’re not alone. Pressure to succeed, parental stresses and work worries mean more and more of us feel like we’re at a crisis point.
It’s important to remember a mental breakdown may not look or feel like a sudden or obvious outburst. Intense stress and anxiety can increase gradually over time too. Here, we share how to spot the signs of a mental breakdown and how to seek help when you need it.

What exactly is a mental breakdown?

A mental breakdown – sometimes called a ‘nervous breakdown’ – isn’t a medical term or mental health diagnosis. In fact, it’s generally used to describe a period of intense mental and emotional distress.

A breakdown is a term that’s used to describe when someone can’t function normally in their everyday life because of overwhelming anxiety, burnout or stress.

What causes a mental breakdown?

A mental breakdown can be triggered by a specific event that causes someone extreme distress. Underlying mental health conditions – like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – can also play a role.

According to one study, several factors can contribute to a mental breakdown – including constant worrying, sleep problems, relationship or financial difficulties, pressures related to work, loneliness and lacking a sense of purpose.

What are the signs of a mental breakdown?

Recognising the signs and symptoms of a mental breakdown in yourself or someone else is important, so that you can get help quickly.

Mental breakdown signs vary from person to person. They can relate to a person’s mental state and how they’re feeling to physical symptoms too. They can also depend on the underlying cause.

If you’re having a mental breakdown, your intense reaction to stress can feel a lot like other mental health conditions like chronic stress, anxiety and depression.

Burnout, where a person experiences too much stress over long periods, also has some similar signs and symptoms to a mental breakdown.

Here are 7 key signs to look out for:

1. You’re feeling anxious or depressed

Are you anxious to the extent that you feel like you can’t cope with daily life? Or are you feeling so low or depressed that it’s impairing your ability to function? Both anxiety and depression are emotional responses to prolonged stress.

If you’re headed towards a mental breakdown, you may experience episodes of feeling helpless or uncontrollable crying. You may also have emotional outbursts or feelings of uncontrollable anger.

2. You’re having panic attacks

If you’re feeling sudden and intense anxiety, you may be having a panic attack. Some people may experience panic attacks in response to severe stress.

These feelings can also be accompanied by physical symptoms of:

  • Trembling or shaking
  • Breathlessness
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Rapid, irregular heartbeats
  • Chest pain

3. You’re finding it difficult to sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for your emotional and physical wellbeing. And excessive stress can impact your sleep.

When you have a lot on your mind, it can be difficult to fall or stay asleep. You may also wake up in the early hours, while others may sleep too much.

One 2018 review found that ‘stress-related worry and rumination’ caused disrupted sleep and eventually the risk of developing future insomnia.

4. You feel exhausted

Too much stress can leave you feeling exhausted and tired. If you’re experiencing a mental breakdown, activities that you once enjoyed may feel increasingly difficult. You may also feel that you don’t have the energy to face routine tasks.

You could also feel tired because you’re not sleeping enough or too much.

5. You’re withdrawing from friends or family

You may start to withdraw from friends, family and co-workers if you’re having a mental breakdown. Signs of withdrawal can include:

  • Calling in sick for work
  • Avoiding social events and missing scheduled appointments
  • Not wanting to spend time with family and friends and isolating at home
  • Not looking after your personal hygiene

6. You have a change in appetite

Do you find yourself overeating as a way of coping with feelings of being overwhelmed? If you find yourself overeating, this could be linked to stress, anxiety or even a mental breakdown. One studyfound that the stress hormone cortisol can trigger cravings for foods that contain high amounts of sugar or fat.

What’s more, there’s evidence to suggest that others may lose their appetite when they’re experiencing immense emotional or mental difficulties.

7. You’re unable to concentrate

Research suggests that prolonged stress can affect your memory and concentration levels. This is because it may cause structural changes in different parts of the brain.

You may have difficulty concentrating, remembering things or feel unable to make decisions if you’re having a mental breakdown.

Your cognitive symptoms may impair your ability to deal with the stress that you’re experiencing.

What should I do in a mental health crisis?

It can be scary to experience the overwhelming feelings of a mental breakdown, but there’s help available.

If you’re at risk of attempting suicide or harming yourself, call 999 or go to A&E. Alternatively, you can contact your local crisis team who will be able to listen and help.

If you urgently need help for your mental health, but it’s not an emergency, call 111.

It’s important to remember that you’re not wasting anyone’s time by reaching out for help.

When should I speak to a doctor?

If you’re struggling with your mental health, speaking to a doctor can be an important and helpful first step. They can refer you for further support.

It’s a good idea to speak to a doctor or therapist if:

  • You’re feeling low or depressed
  • You’re struggling with anxiety, stress or another mental health issue
  • You feel like you’re unable to cope with daily life, including work, study or relationships
  • You’re finding it hard to go to sleep or get up
  • You’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or self-harming

This article has been medically approved by Livi Lead GP, Dr Bryony Henderson.

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