It is very likely that we have all experienced nerves or anxiety at some point. When these symptoms are of considerable intensity, we can say that we have suffered a nervous breakdown .

A nervous breakdown is caused when the environmental situation exceeds the resources we have to cope with. In this article we will know what this type of crisis consists of, what its usual symptoms are (and their types), its causes and the treatments that can be applied.

Nervous breakdown: what is it?

We use the term “nervous breakdown” to refer, in a non-medical way and in everyday language, to anxiety attacks . Nervous breakdown can occur both in healthy people (without any mental disorder) under highly stressful conditions, and in people with some kind of mental disorder. In this second case, many times the nervous breakdown is one of the underlying symptoms of the disorder.

Roughly speaking, a nervous breakdown can last from minutes, to hours (most common), to days and even weeks .

But what exactly is a nervous breakdown? In ordinary language, we use this concept to refer to elevated states of anxiety and nervousness that appear when we are overwhelmed (or overwhelmed) by circumstances; that is, our resources are insufficient to cope with the demands of the environment .

Many times these demands are highly stressful, and lead to a series of characteristic symptoms, which we will see later on.

Environmental requirements

Broadly speaking, we can say that a person who suffers a nervous breakdown manifests a series of anxious and/or nervous symptoms. All of this means that the person’s ability to respond to the demands of the environment is drastically reduced, and therefore their functioning is altered and ends up being dysfunctional or maladaptive.

The demands of the environment in which the person is involved, which may include work, social, personal situations … are perceived by the individual as too demanding and impossible to manage.

This perception can change from one person to another, and that is why the causes or triggers of a breakdown (demands of the environment) will never be the same for one person or another. However, they will share a common element, which is their perception of uncontrollability or unmanageability.


There are a number of characteristic symptoms of a nervous breakdown . However, it should be mentioned that these can vary considerably from one person to another, depending on their personal characteristics, situations that trigger the crisis, demands of the environment, etc.

Thus, the most frequent symptoms in a nervous breakdown are of three types: psychological symptoms, physiological symptoms and behavioural symptoms. Although the three types of symptoms are related and often overlap each other, let’s look at some of the symptoms that each of these categories groups together:

1. Psychological symptoms

The psychological symptoms refer to the person’s psyche and mental processes. They include the following:

1.1. Feeling of uneasiness

The person with a breakdown may have a constant or intermittent feeling of uneasiness . They may feel nervous, tense, like they are “on the verge of losing control”. This feeling is very psychological, but it can end up having repercussions on other types of symptoms, such as physiological ones.

1.2. Cognitive disorders

Alterations may also appear on the cognitive level, such as difficulties in evoking memories (memory alterations), attention and concentration difficulties, slowness in making decisions (or inability to make them), etc.

In general, and by way of comment, it is known that mental disorders often lead to cognitive alterations (for example depression, generalised anxiety disorder, etc.). We should not confuse a cognitive disorder (e.g. dementia) with a pseudo-dementia or a pseudo-depressive one.

1.3. Irrational Fear

Another psychological symptom that can appear in a nervous breakdown is an irrational fear, which is often disproportionate or has no clear trigger.

Physiological symptoms

The physiological symptoms correspond to the most corporal terrain, and include physical alterations such as the following:

2.1. Fatigue

Fatigue implies a high sensation of tiredness, as well as heaviness , which hinders the development of daily life activities. This fatigue may be caused by continuous stress, by psychological factors or by both.

2.2. Loss of appetite

Weight loss is another physiological symptom of a nervous breakdown. This can be caused by the chronic stress the person is under, or by the constant feeling of nerves in the stomach.

2.3. Sleep disturbance

Anxiety (and psychological factors in general) and sleep are closely related; thus, a person who suffers from anxiety (or a nervous breakdown) is very likely to also have sleep disturbances, which make it difficult for him or her to achieve a restful and satisfying sleep.

These alterations can translate into difficulties in falling asleep (initial insomnia), difficulties in maintaining sleep throughout the night (maintenance insomnia) or the presence of an early awakening (terminal insomnia).

2.4. Headaches

Migraines and headaches are also frequent in a nervous breakdown , as part of the physical or physiological symptoms. These symptoms also appear in various anxiety disorders.

3. Behavioral symptoms

Behavioral symptoms of a nervous breakdown encompass the person’s most behavioral domain. Some of these symptoms translate into:

3.1. Social isolation

The person may end up becoming socially isolated, avoiding meeting friends or partners, not seeing family, etc. All this is usually caused by the discomfort caused by the other symptoms and the fear of having another nervous breakdown in social situations .

3.2. Aggressive behaviour

Sometimes, uncontrolled or exaggerated anger can appear, resulting in aggressive or defiant behavior, which only adds to the discomfort and tension felt by the person.

3.3. Excessive crying

Finally, another behavioural symptom characteristic of a nervous breakdown is crying , which is usually excessive (sometimes without a clear trigger) and inconsolable.


The causes of a nervous breakdown can vary from person to person. Normally these attacks have a multifactorial origin , and as we have seen, they appear as a consequence of a demanding environmental situation or environmental demands to which the person is unable to act.

Thus, the main cause of a nervous breakdown is a highly stressful situation; examples of these are situations of divorce, loss of a loved one, high workloads, work problems, economic problems, etc.

On a biological level, there has also been talk of a genetic predisposition to suffer this type of crisis, which added to the stressful situation, triggers a nervous breakdown. Heredity is also likely to play an important role.

Finally, another possible cause is an underlying mental disorder, such as an anxiety disorder, psychotic disorder, depressive disorder, etc. It will be important to discern the symptoms well in order to correctly diagnose the breakdown. On the other hand, temperamental, suggestive and personality factors can also play a key role in its origin; for example, neurotic people are more at risk of developing one.


The most appropriate treatment for a nervous breakdown is one that involves a multidisciplinary approach. Psychodrugs may offer certain benefits in the short term, but in the long term the ideal will always be a comprehensive treatment that includes psychotherapy .

Psychological techniques that can be used include cognitive restructuring techniques to treat dysfunctional thoughts, relaxation and breathing techniques that decrease anxious and physical symptoms, and psychoeducation that helps the patient understand the origin and maintenance of his or her nervous breakdown.

In addition, offering the patient adaptive tools and coping mechanisms for stressful situations, will also help to eliminate such symptoms .

Bibliographic references:

  • Caballo, V.E. (2002). Manual for the cognitive-behavioral treatment of psychological disorders. Vol. 1 and 2. Madrid. Siglo XXI.
  • Stekel, W. (2012). Nervous states of distress and their treatment. V Xerte, 23(106), 468.