Stress is a normal part of life, but when it gets to be too much, your body can shut down. (Photo by Getty Images)
It’s another late night at the office – you’re going on 60 hours this week. You’re working on a project you know your boss is going to throw right back into your face. You finally make it home, only to pass out on the couch, wake up and repeat your own hellish version of “Groundhog’s Day.” And somewhere between all the meetings, revisions and stress, you snap.
It’s called a nervous breakdown, and though it’s not an officially recognized diagnosis, clinical psychologist Denee Jordan says it’s a perfect descriptor of what the body goes through. “It’s similar to running a car without stopping or taking care of it until it just breaks. Our system shuts down due to the mounting stress,” says Jordan, director of mental health services for the Exceptional Children’s Foundation, an organization that helps children and adults with emotional or developmental issues.
Stress has become such a part of our lives that we often think it’s normal to feel that way, Jordan adds, and it keeps building until we can’t take it anymore. “We’re bombarded with impossible expectations,” she says. “We’re encouraged to be burnt out. The employee that works 17 hours a day is the one who gets the employee of the month award, but then feels ashamed when he can no longer keep up the pace.”
Recognizing the Warning Signs
Nervous breakdowns don’t sneak up on you, unless you let them. There are warning signs and symptoms that you’re pushing your body too far, says Jonathan Jackson, director of the Center for Psychological Services and Field Training at Adelphi University in New York. “It means quite a number of different things to different people, but there are some common experiences that we can identify,” he says.
Some people show symptoms that can seem like the symptoms of a severe mental illness, Jackson says. “They can experience an inability to distinguish what is real from what is imagined, including delusions and hallucinations,” he says. “These symptoms can be so disruptive that the person who is suffering them is unable to perform ordinary activities. It’s pretty easy to identify people who are in the midst of this sort of breakdown, because they can’t manage their distress, so they can’t hide it.”
For others, it’s much more subtle. “It could be a depression that takes hold slowly at first, and builds to the point that the person has lost interest in life, feels hopeless and has no energy to perform ordinary activities,” Jackson says. “This presentation is not as easy to identify because it comes on slowly and because people who are suffering this way often hide or deny it.”
When you deny how much stress you’re under and let it build, the symptoms can get worse, Jordan says. “The more stress we encounter, the higher our baseline gets,” she says. “We begin to tolerate more and more stress in our lives, and it just spirals from there.”
Preventing the Breakdown
Recognizing the symptoms is the first step to preventing a nervous breakdown, Jordan says. Once you realize you’re heading down that dangerous road, you need to take a step back and evaluate how you can turn the release valve. “Give yourself time to unwind,” she says. “Exercise, spend time with family and friends, and just let yourself have fun.”
There is no right way to deal with stress, says Michele Ford, a visiting professor of psychology at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Coping mechanisms differ from person to person, and you need to figure out what’s right for you. “Learn when you need a break and then take one – be that a few minutes to regroup, a night off or a vacation,” she says. “Start exercising, even if it is just a brief walk during lunch or at the end of the day. Eat well, get enough sleep and incorporate something relaxing into your routine.”
Meditation often helps people who are overstressed, Ford says. “It helps you become more mindful and focus on the positive aspects of your life.”
Of course, breaks and vacations aren’t always possible, so doing what you can to stay organized can help keep you calm and focused at work or at home. “Find ways to manage your time better,” Ford says.
But if you try all these mechanisms and are still heading for the breakdown, Jordan says, you might need professional help. “See a therapist or a counselor. That’s what they’re there for,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll prescribe medication; other times they’ll just help you talk through it.”
And no matter what you think, there’s no reason to feel ashamed for needing help, Jordan emphasizes. “It’s not weak to see a therapist,” she says. “Strong people are able to ask for help when they need it.”
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