Symptoms of a mental breakdown can include a panic attack, confusion, or even hallucinations. (GIF: Getty Images/Gary Waters/Yahoo Health)
You’ve heard the story before: A friend works 60 hours a week completing project after project, with no end in sight — and suddenly she “snaps.” She stops taking care of herself, avoids social events, and can’t handle the tasks of everyday life.
In other words, she has a mental breakdown.
It’s what “happens when a person is experiencing really significant distress or real functional impairment,” says psychologist J. Ryan Fuller, PhD, the clinical director of New York Behavioral Health.
And while the term “mental breakdown” is often used to describe this sort of scenario, it’s actually “an anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder, or mood disorder that’s triggered by a major life transition such as job-related stress or a traumatic event,” Fuller tells Yahoo Health.
Symptoms of a breakdown can vary from person to person. Sometimes there’s a panic attack, or strong feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or confusion. Others see hallucinations or spirits, David S. Ullmann, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City, tells Yahoo Health.
In some cases, a person in distress is no longer able to function at work or home, or take care of basic needs like eating or maintaining hygiene, he says. It may lead to depression or thoughts of suicide.
Mental breakdowns are often brief, and can be treated through meetings with a cognitive behavioral therapist. Natural resiliencies kick in and the person can go back to work, or interacting with their family and friends as they did before.
But when the crisis is severe and creates a safety risk for the distressed or those around him or her, a daily psychiatric program or psychiatric hospitalization may be recommended.
“Once a thorough psychiatric assessment is completed, a diagnosis will then be made,” says Ullmann. Common diagnoses for breakdowns are post traumatic stress disorder, or depression. More severe cases have led to the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia, Ullmann says.
While everyone is vulnerable to experience a nervous breakdown, there are some ways to prevent one. If you have a predictable life change coming up, it’s important to try to reduce any emotional stress ahead of time, Fuller says.
“If you’re going to change jobs, move, or go through a breakup, make sure you are sleeping regularly, exercising, and eating a nutritious diet to avoid stress on your mind and body,” Fuller says. “Joining a social or religious organization can also help you feel connected.”
To get a better understanding for what it really feels like to experience a mental breakdown, we teamed up with Whisper, a free app that allows users to share their secrets anonymously, to gather candid thoughts from 26 people who have had one before. They describe what it’s like: