What is a Nervous Breakdown?

A closeup of the fractured patterns of ice on a window

First of all let’s make this clear: “Nervous Breakdown” is a popular term, it is not a clinical term and is not used by mental health professionals. Nervous Breakdown (or Mental Breakdown) is a term used for a severe, time-limited psychiatric disorder that can cause a previously functional person to break down to the point that they are no longer functional day-to-day. These breakdowns are usually temporary in nature and are often tied to some form of psychological burnout due to overwork, sleep deprivation, increased stress, decreased health, or a combination of these things.

The term can be used to describe any number of mental disorders that a person may experience. It is used for a number of reasons, including: to hide a diagnosis; to avoid the stigma of a diagnosis; not understanding the reasons for certain loss of function (such as not seeing a doctor, but having symptoms); and not accepting a diagnosis among others. There are many disorders that can fit within the criteria of “Nervous Breakdown”, but those that most commonly occur are those related to:

Anxiety Disorders

Trauma Disorders

Psychotic Disorders

Depressive Disorders

Bipolar Disorders

The Disorder that is mimics the most directly however is Major Depressive Disorder (Depression). On the historical note, the reason the term “Nervous Breakdown” came into being was that people preferred to have a physical (Nerves) illness as opposed to a psychological or psychiatric illness.

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Derek Wood is a Nationally Board Certified Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse, and holds a Master's degree in Psychology. His experience in the online arena of mental health can be traced back to 1997, when he was a host for Online Psych on AOL. He joined Get Mental Help, Inc. as Clinical Content Director for Mental Health Matters. Derek, with his wife Lisa, developed the original version of psychTracker (then called A Mood Journal), after his diagnosis with Schizo-Affective Bipolar, when they could not find a system available that was robust enough to help him effectively manage his symptoms and accurately interpret his charting. Derek has worked in the field of mental health since 2001, as a Unit Manager of an adult long-term treatment facility, a charge nurse in an adolescent short-term inpatient facility and long-term residential facility, and as a School Psychologist. He has also written several articles which are being used as CEU for nurses and educators.

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