What does it mean to have a nervous breakdown?

Answers from Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D.

The term "nervous breakdown" is sometimes used to describe a stressful situation in which someone becomes temporarily unable to function normally in day-to-day life. It's commonly understood to occur when life's demands become physically and emotionally overwhelming. The term was frequently used in the past to cover a variety of mental disorders, but it's used less often today.

Nervous breakdown isn't a medical term, however, nor does it indicate a specific mental illness. But that doesn't mean it's a normal or a healthy response to stress. A nervous breakdown may indicate an underlying mental health problem that needs attention, such as depression or anxiety.

Signs of a nervous breakdown vary from person to person and depend on the underlying cause. Exactly what constitutes a nervous breakdown also varies from one culture to another. Generally, it's understood to mean that a person is no longer able to function normally. For example, he or she may:

  • Call in sick to work for days or longer
  • Avoid social engagements and miss appointments
  • Have trouble following healthy patterns of eating, sleeping and hygiene

A number of other unusual or dysfunctional behaviors may be considered signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown.

If you're concerned that you're experiencing a nervous breakdown, get help. If you have a primary care doctor, talk to him or her about your signs and symptoms or seek help from a mental health provider.

Jan. 31, 2014