Emotional Breakdown Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Isolated woman with depression

Everyone deals with stress to some extent. An emotional breakdown can occur when stress becomes so overwhelming, you can no longer manage it effectively. There are several telltale signs of a nervous breakdown, as well as possible treatments and stress management strategies.


The term "emotional breakdown" can be used interchangeably with "nervous breakdown" and "mental breakdown." These are not official medical terms and, when referenced, they do not automatically imply the presence of mental illness.

Defining a Nervous Breakdown

A nervous breakdown can happen if you are in the midst of a stressful situation and temporarily lose the ability to function in a normal capacity. This is a very unhealthy response to stress and may indicate underlying mental health issues that need to be addressed, such as depression or anxiety.

Normal Stress or Emotional Breakdown

Stess itself is a normal part of life. It's a physical reaction to a negative situation or changing circumstances. What matters most is how you choose to deal with it. Sometimes, the support and understanding of family and friends can help you manage the stress and work through it. Other times, a counselor may be needed. This doesn't necessarily indicate mental illness; it's just that the situation is too difficult to deal with on your own. Stress can be hard to recognize and, at times, you can reach a breaking point without even realizing just how stressed you are. This is when a potential nervous breakdown can occur.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown will vary from person to person depending on the underlying cause, their age, their coping skills, and their personality, among other factors.

Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Having anxiety or panic attacks are common reactions to stress when your coping abilities are overwhelmed. If a breakdown is imminent, you may experience:

  • Episodes of uncontrollable crying or weepiness
  • High blood pressure
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Trouble breathing
  • Tensed muscles
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Clammy hands
  • Upset stomach
  • Dizziness and headaches


You can also be in a depressive state, which may include:

  • A change in mood
  • Feeling a loss of hope
  • Preferring to be alone
  • Eating more or less than is typical for you
  • Sleep disturbances
  • A lack of interest in things you once enjoyed
  • Weight loss
  • Hygiene issues
  • Disconnecting from everyday life
  • Self-mutilation
  • Suicidal thoughts

Extreme Mood Swings

Emotional breakdowns may also lead to unusual, unexplained outbursts, along with mood swings. This could be associated with bipolar disorder as an underlying cause.

Social Withdrawal

When you feel you have been traumatized by stressful life events, you may withdraw from family and friends and just prefer to be alone. You will purposely avoid social interactions, miss appointments and even call in sick from work for an extended length of time.


Hallucinations can be common with a nervous breakdown. You are having sensations you think are real but are actually created in your head. When you are dealing with this type of psychosis, you lose touch with reality. This is often associated with schizophrenia or substance abuse. You may see, hear or feel things that aren't really there.


In severe cases of a mental breakdown, you may have fear or delusions that someone is watching or following you. There is also a feeling of detachment and depersonalization where it seems as if you are not part of a given situation. This will contribute to your paranoia issues. You may also become suspicious or feel like you can't trust those who are close to you.

Possible Causes

The cause of a nervous breakdown relates directly to the stressful event that triggered it. Some examples include:

Treatment for Emotional Breakdowns

There is no standard cure for a nervous breakdown, but there are many treatment options that depend on the diagnosis of each individual case.

  • A hospital stay may be necessary. This will help with stabilization and starting treatment. The length of the stay will depend on the severity of the breakdown.
  • Speaking with a therapist one-on-one can teach you coping strategies and relaxation techniques.
  • A doctor may prescribe anti-depressant, anti-anxiety or anti-psychotic medications depending on the underlying mental condition.
  • Group therapy can help you share with others who have had a similar experience as you did.
  • Family therapy can help get loved ones involved and offer support.
  • Alternative therapies may also help, such as acupuncture, art therapy or animal therapy.

Prevention Techniques

If you are getting overwhelmed by stress in your life, it is important to recognize the warning signs of an emotional breakdown. Some ways that may help prevent a potential nervous breakdown are:

  • Reducing sources of stress
  • Avoiding illicit drugs
  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
  • Exercising moderately for at least 20 minutes a day
  • Doing yoga or tai chi
  • Using massage or aromatherapy to relax
  • Having healthy hygiene, sleep and eating habits
  • Engaging in open discussions with your friends and family
  • Considering a support group
Meditating by the water at sunset

Therapy and Relaxation

The most effective ways to avoid having another mental breakdown are to recognize the signs of stress when they come into your life, maintain the therapy and treatments your doctor prescribes, and practice the relaxation techniques that best help you with your recovery.

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Emotional Breakdown Symptoms, Causes and Treatment