12 Signs of a Nervous Breakdown

Medically approved by
Dr Earim Chaudry
Last updated
22nd March 2022

In 30 seconds

A nervous breakdown is quite an outdated expression that refers to a period of intense mental distress. These days, that’s more commonly known as a mental health crisis. The signs of a nervous breakdown can be really varied, and can include the symptoms of anxiety, paranoia, or severe depression. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or a desire to self-harm, please call the emergency services at 999.

What is a Nervous Breakdown?

A nervous breakdown is an expression people use to refer to a period of intense mental distress. More commonly, it is known as a mental health crisis, or sometimes a mental breakdown. It’s a specific moment in which you feel you’re at breaking point and need urgent help.

Mental health crises are usually caused by long-term conditions, such as:

  • Depression. A mental illness characterised by persistent low mood and feelings of hopelessness, inertia, and feelings of overwhelm. In severe cases, depression can cause suicidal thoughts and severe mental distress.
  • Anxiety. While anxiety can be a common feeling of unease or fear, it can be the sign of a mental health issue if the feeling is long-lasting, particularly intense, or unrelated to any specific trigger. This is known as generalised anxiety disorder and it can cause mental health crises.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder. A mental health problem caused by a past traumatic or terrifying experience, PTSD can cause you to feel very anxious, experience flashbacks, and have nightmares and difficulty sleeping.

In other cases, mental health crises can be brought on by very difficult life circumstances, including financial worries, chronic instability, abuse, or a personal tragedy. In these cases, it may not be caused by a diagnosable mental illness.

Key Signs of a Nervous Breakdown

A mental health crisis is an episode of intense emotional distress. You may experience some of the following symptoms of a nervous breakdown:

  1. Extremely anxiety, sadness, or concern
  2. Panic attacks, in which you may feel very intense fear
  3. Feelings of isolation and loneliness
  4. Overwhelm, or a belief that you cannot keep going
  5. Irritableness and moodiness, sometimes in dramatic mood swings
  6. Hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia
  7. Thoughts of self-harm. Self-harm is where you hurt yourself on purpose, to turn emotional pain into physical pain, or to feel more in control

Emotional and psychological symptoms may be accompanied by physical symptoms of distress, including:

  1. Insomnia. Distressing thoughts can cause you to struggle to get to sleep or else wake up in the night
  2. Fatigue. If you are sleeping poorly, or are under extreme emotional pressure, you may feel physical exhaustion
  3. Muscle pain or tension. High stress levels can lead to otherwise unexplained aches or pains.
  4. Digestion problems. Emotional stress is often felt in the gut, and it may affect your bowels
  5. Heart palpitations. During an anxiety attack, your heart rate may increase dramatically

What To Do If You’re Having a Nervous Breakdown

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, you may be having a mental health crisis. While it may be scary, there are some things that you can do:

  • If you are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, talk to the Samaritans at 116123 from the UK. Alternatively, call 999.
  • Reach out to someone. A friend or family member may be able to help. A loved one or someone you trust can be there for you, support you, and hear how you are feeling.
  • Focus on your breathing. The mental health charity Mind has some strategies to help you cope if you are experiencing a mental health crisis. Focusing on your breathing and trying to ignore painful or intrusive thoughts can help.
  • Write down your thoughts. This is both a strategy for daily life and for a crisis. Getting some distance from your thoughts by writing them down can help you overcome them. It is another coping mechanism suggested by Mind.
  • Talk to a therapist. Mental health professionals are there to help. They may prescribe you with antidepressants or other medications or suggest cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). Alternatively, it can be helpful for you simply to have an ear to listen to how you are feeling.

Find out more: Therapy for Men: What are the Options?

Strategies to Improve Your Mental Health

Even if you are not currently experiencing the warning signs of a mental health crisis, it is important that you work to put steps in place to improve your mental health in everyday life.

There are some simple lifestyle changes you can make that can help:

  • Exercise. Physical activity has been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. You don’t need to do much. Just 150 minutes a week – that’s about 20 minutes every day – will have an impact.
  • Try to improve your sleep. It’s a lot to ask if you are already struggling with stresses or medical conditions that affect your sleep. However, improving your sleep can improve your mental health. Here are our tips on how to sleep better.
  • Talk to someone. In any stressful situation, reach out to someone. It doesn’t need to be professional help, but anyone who you trust.
  • Make time for what you enjoy. Not all strategies for self-care mean doing something you wouldn’t normally do. Remembering what it is that you enjoy can be an important part of maintaining your mood.
  • Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs. Studies have shown that alcohol can exacerbate your symptoms of depression or anxiety. Recreational drugs too. These are best avoided for the time being.
  • Stay in good physical health, if you can. Poor physical health increases our chances of poor mental health, with one in three people with a physical health problem also having a mental health problem. If you can, ensure that you eat well and stay active. It will help your mental health in the long run.

Key Takeaways

What are the key signs of a nervous breakdown? Firstly, a feeling that you cannot carry on – because of confusion, fear, anxiety, or sadness. Hallucinations and delusions, as well as physical symptoms including fatigue and insomnia can be present too.

There is help out there. If you feel that you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to a loved one or healthcare provider now.


What Happens When You Have a Nervous Breakdown?

When you have a nervous breakdown, you may feel that you cannot go on. There may be other symptoms, including severe emotional distress, panic, feelings of isolation, or paranoia. But please know that you are not alone. Help is out there. 

What Triggers a Nervous Breakdown?

There can be many triggers to a nervous breakdown, including financial worries, trauma and tragedy, or abuse. But a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety may be an underlying cause.


  1. mind.org.uk – What can I do to help myself cope? – https://www.mind.org.uk/need-urgent-help/what-can-i-do-to-help-myself-cope/

  2. P Callaghan. Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care? – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15255923/

  3. Manual – How to Sleep Better: 20 Essential Tips – https://www.manual.co/health-centre/sleep/how-to-sleep-better-20-essential-tips

  4. www.mentalhealth.org.uk – Alcohol and mental health – https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/a/alcohol-and-mental-health

  5. www.mentalhealth.org.uk – Physical health and mental health – https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/p/physical-health-and-mental-health

While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Further reading

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