What is a nervous breakdown and what should you do?

A “nervous breakdown” is a period of severe and intense emotional symptoms such as panic, anxiety, and distress. While nervous breakdown is not an official diagnosis, the term is still commonly used. The term “nervous breakdown” describes a situation in which a person has mental health symptoms that overwhelm them to the point where they cannot carry out their routine daily activities, such as going to work or school or taking care of themselves or others.

In this article, learn more about what a nervous breakdown is and how to seek help or support someone else in this crisis situation.

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“Nervous breakdown” is an old term

The term “nervous breakdown” originated in the 1700s, when scientists believed that our nervous systems cause mental health symptoms. This was a way to keep people out of asylums and to keep hope for a physical cure.

They believed that what is now known as a mental health crisis was the result of a malfunction of the nervous system, hence the name “nervous breakdown.” People still use the term “nervous breakdown,” but it’s not an accurate medical term.

Nervous Breakdown Definition: What Do People Mean?

You may hear the term “nervous breakdown” replaced with other terms such as “mental health crisis” or “mental breakdown” or as a “flare-up” of an existing mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, personality disorders, and more.

Nervous breakdown vs. Burnout

Similar to a nervous breakdown, burnout is not a medical condition. Burnout is an “occupational phenomenon,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Symptoms of burnout include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Fatigue
  • Cynicism about your job or occupation
  • Reduced professional effectiveness

According to the WHO, the term “burnout” should only be used for occupation-related stress and not for how your mental state affects other areas of your life.

Symptoms suggesting a nervous breakdown

“Nervous breakdown” and “mental breakdown” are not clinical terms, making it difficult to identify exactly which symptoms might indicate that you (or someone you know) are experiencing one. A nervous breakdown is a generic term to describe a period of severe mental distress.

Symptoms you may associate with a nervous breakdown include:

Why might someone have a nervous breakdown?

A person may have a breakdown due to an aggravation of an existing mental illness or overwhelming stress.

About 1 in 5 adults in the United States suffers from a mental illness each year. Additionally, only 47.2% of adults with mental illness in the United States receive treatment. An untreated or inadequately treated mental illness can lead to a “flare-up” or symptom crisis, which may be referred to as a “nervous breakdown.”

A person with no previously diagnosed mental illness may also experience symptoms associated with a nervous breakdown, such as mental stress from losing a job or home, grief from losing a loved one, divorce, and stress from changes in life. life such as childbirth or menopause.

Some viruses that affect the brain, including COVID-19, could cause symptoms such as a nervous breakdown.

The COVID-19 mental health crisis

There is growing evidence that COVID-19 can lead to brain inflammation and blood vessel damage leading to short- and long-term neurological (brain-related) symptoms. People with COVID-19 are at an increased risk of experiencing psychiatric symptoms, encephalitis, severe anxiety and depression, and, in rare cases, psychosis.

What to do during a nervous breakdown

If you or someone you care about is experiencing symptoms of a nervous breakdown, ensure their safety first. Contact a healthcare professional, the National Mental Health Hotline or emergency services to discuss your symptoms and treatment options.

If your symptoms put you or others in imminent danger, you may be hospitalized for observation and individualized treatment, which may include:

  • Psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy)
  • Medical prescription
  • Rehabilitation facilities

Support for nervous crises: who to contact

Various mental health resources are available. Some people or organizations to seek support from include:

Starting treatment, how long can a nervous breakdown last?

Because it’s an antiquated term and not an official diagnosis, there’s no research into quantifying how long a nervous breakdown lasts. It’s essential to know the cause of your symptoms, such as an untreated mental health condition, life change, or stress. Obstacles to accurate diagnosis and treatment can prolong the duration of breakdown symptoms.

How to help someone else going through a nervous breakdown

If someone you care about is having a nervous breakdown, it’s only natural that you want to help them.

Here are some strategies to keep in mind:

  • Pay attention to the warning signs: Know the warning signs of a mental health crisis, including isolation, lack of self-care, changes in eating habits, paranoia, and more.
  • Promote a safe and welcoming space for them: Let your loved one know that you accept them for who they are, and tell them that you care about them and that you are there when and if they feel ready to discuss any mental health issues.
  • Encourage them to talk to a professional: Provide information such as telephone numbers, names or recommendations for qualified mental health professionals such as psychiatrists, therapists or counselors.
  • Know the national helplines: Be aware of the various national emergency mental health hotlines.


“Nervous breakdown” is an outdated term, not a diagnosable condition. The term refers to a major mental health crisis involving panic, anxiety, mental distress, isolation, and other symptoms. A mental breakdown can occur from any number of mental illnesses or stressful life events, and it’s vital you seek help so you can stay safe and receive the correct diagnosis and treatment.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read about our editorial process to learn more about how we fact check and keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.

  1. Science Museum. From nerves to neuroses.

  2. World Health Organization. Burnout an “occupational phenomenon”: international classification of diseases.

  3. American Psychiatric Association. Warning signs of mental illness.

  4. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental health in numbers.

  5. Lee MH, Perl DP, Steiner J, et al. Neurovascular injury with complement activation and inflammation in COVID-19.Brain. 2022;145(7):2555-2568. doi: 10.1093/brain/awac151

  6. Harvard Health. Does COVID-19 damage the brain?

  7. Al-Busaidi S, Huseini SA, Al-Shehhi R, Zishan AA, Moghadas M, Al-Adawi S. Covid-19 induced new-onset psychosis: a case report from Oman.Medical Journal of Oman. 2021;36(5):e303. doi:10.5001%2Fomj.2022.25

By Sarah Bence

Sarah Bence, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist and freelance writer. She specializes in a variety of health topics including mental health, dementia, celiac disease and endometriosis.

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