Published on June 22nd, 2013 | by Jen Sparks

Falling Apart in Clinical Terms

Sometimes life throws a lot at you over a period of time. Sometimes life throws a lot at you all at once. There is always a limit to how much the human heart and mind can take.

My husband had a complete emotional breakdown a couple years after some incredibly difficult family issues. For a long time we lived, not in denial, but in ignorance of what he was going through. By the time he finally admitted to having fallen apart, he’d seriously considered suicide, depression had strangled our marriage, and anxiety had almost cost him his job. Understanding the various types of breakdowns, their causes, and their treatment options could have assisted us in finding help sooner.

What is a nervous breakdown?

An emotional breakdown or nervous breakdown would better be called “acute stress disorder.”

The experience commonly known as a nervous breakdown takes place during a specific point in time when a person exhibits symptoms of depression and anxiety as a result of intensely stressful situations like relationship struggles or financial issues.[1] Health professionals tend not to use “emotional/nervous breakdown” as a medical term relating to mental illness.

However, that phrase can be an accurate way to describe how the experience feels. When you fall apart, as a quote doing the rounds on social media at the moment says, it’s not proof that you are a weak person, but often an indication that you’ve been strong too long.

Doctors and counsellors are more likely to refer to such experiences as “situational depression” or “burnout” or to diagnose Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Anxiety and Depressed Mood (Acute), acute stress disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, depending on the symptoms and external factors. Usually, people are not diagnosed with a breakdown until they have recovered.

A nervous breakdown is often caused by a domino effect of stressful situations. For example: demanding work pressure, severe debt, or an elongated illness, whether your own or that of someone close to you. Sometimes a breakdown can manifest quite suddenly, triggered by the loss of a career, a relationship breakdown, or the death of a loved one.

Symptoms of a nervous breakdown

During an emotional/nervous breakdown, physical, mental, and emotional symptoms can present. offers a good list of symptoms of a nervous breakdown. They offer the following symptoms and more:

Physical symptoms can include irregular heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, and exhaustion. These symptoms can make people panic that they are getting very sick. People are more likely to go to the doctor for these than for the mental/emotional signs.

Mental symptoms can include irrational fears, inability to cope with normal tasks, decreased libido, angry outbursts, and sleep problems. Often when people experience these symptoms, they worry that they are losing their minds or going crazy. These symptoms are important indications to head immediately to the doctor.

Emotional symptoms can include crying for no clear reason, guilty feelings, withdrawal from loved ones and activities, and paranoid fears.[2]

If you have had an experience that includes several of the above symptoms, start with a call to your family doctor, general practitioner, or OB/GYN or midwife. They can connect you with the right care provider for your situation.

Treatment for an emotional breakdown varies. There is no one-size-fits-all cure. Therapy, counselling, and medications such as antidepressants can all be effective in treating and helping the majority of people return to a healthier, better mindset. Sometimes taking time away from stressors can also help people unwind, process, and heal emotionally.

Recovery times will also depend on the individual situation. Proper self care can help the process along during recovery from an emotional breakdown. For example, taking stock of influences that may be eliminated to lessen stress, such as smoking, junk food, alcohol, or drugs; attempting to maintain a proper sleep schedule; and eating well. Exercise can also help by raising endorphins.

Above all else, be kind to yourself.

What is a psychotic break?

A psychotic break is different from an emotional/nervous breakdown in that it is triggered suddenly and can cause temporary, radical changes in personality, abnormal behaviour, impaired functioning, violent outbursts, and/or major depression. A psychotic break can be part of a larger mental illness like schizophrenia, or it can be a one-time experience.

Environmental factors that contribute to a psychotic break are not unlike those in an emotional breakdown: the sudden death of a loved one, for example. Other known triggers are profound lack of sleep, fever, brain damage, abuse or trauma, war experience, and, in some cases, hypnosis. Substance abuse is also a common cause.

Symptoms of a psychotic break

Sometimes a psychotic break will result in violent or aggressive behaviour. Other times, someone suffering a psychotic break will withdraw or become suicidal. Delusions, hallucinations, and loss of touch with reality can also be symptoms.[3]

I personally know a young man who had a psychotic break. He was studying for his end of year 12 exams (senior year), was constantly staying up way too late to do so, and was drinking far above the recommended daily intake of Red Bull. During his psychotic break, he held up the grocery store he worked for at knifepoint. It was incredibly out of character for him, and everyone was shocked.

Treatment for psychotic breaks usually includes hospitalization for a time, medication, and therapy. Recovery can take a month or so, depending on all emotional, medicinal, and environmental factors.

If someone you know drastically changes their behaviour and acts wildly out of the ordinary for them, do what you can to seek immediate medical help for them, to protect them and others from their actions. If you or the other person are in imminent danger, call the police. If there is not imminent danger, bring them to an emergency room to be evaluated. If they will not go, contact a mental health agency that has an emergency services team. If an involuntary hospitalization is needed, a mental health evaluator can fill out the proper forms and work with the police to get the person safely to a treatment hospital.

Check out the Get Help page for resources near you.

Photo by Robert Linder via Stock.Xchng.

[1] Rapport, L. J.; Todd, R. M.; Lumley, M. A.; Fisicaro, S. A. (1998). “The diagnostic meaning of “nervous breakdown” among lay populations”. J Pers Assess 71 (2): 242–252.doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa7102_11.


[3] WiseGeek

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