What happens when you have a nervous breakdown

Nervous Breakdown: Symptoms and Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder

A nervous breakdown is often accompanied by strong feelings of sadness, helplessness, and fear.
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A nervous breakdown usually occurs only a few moments immediately after a traumatic experience such as an accident, an experience of violence or the death of a loved one. The person affected experiences the strong stress reaction through various, sometimes very pronounced physical and psychological symptoms, which usually only last for a short time.

If the acute stress reaction lasts longer than 48 hours, doctors speak of an acute stress disorder. If the symptoms do not go away after four weeks, it is an acute post-traumatic stress disorder that should continue to be treated so that it does not turn into long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious mental illness.

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Symptoms: what are the signs of a nervous breakdown?

The symptoms of a nervous breakdown can be very diverse and different in severity. Signs of a nervous breakdown include:

  • Changes in perception (depersonalization): The person concerned experiences himself and the environment as strange and surreal.

  • Physical symptoms such as severe tremors, crying fits, palpitations, sweats, nausea, dizziness, pressure in the head

  • Nervousness, inner restlessness and Hyperactivity

  • Speechlessness: Those affected often find it difficult to verbalize the triggering event.

  • Feeling of helplessness

  • Breathing difficulties: After being in shock, it can be difficult to breathe calmly and evenly. For many of those affected it feels like they can no longer breathe properly.

  • Lump feeling in the throat: The subjective feeling of having a lump in the throat is also a common reaction to stressful crisis situations.

  • Narrowing of consciousness: The thoughts turn in a circle and only around the triggering event.

  • Jumpiness and increased irritability

  • Avoidance behavior: Those who suffer a nervous breakdown often withdraw from their social environment.

  • Emotional disorders (affect disorder): The mood of those affected fluctuates very strongly after a nervous breakdown. Depending on which event triggered the acute stress reaction, feelings such as aggression, fear, sadness or anger can quickly alternate. Inappropriate laughter is also a typical shock reaction.

  • Memory problems / gaps in memory: Traumatic experiences are often associated with amnesia, which means that those affected can no longer remember a certain period of time, often the triggering traumatic event.

  • Feelings like sadness or anger: Depending on the situation that triggered the nervous breakdown, strong feelings, such as sadness or anger, are typical symptoms of an acute stress reaction.

If a nervous breakdown lasts longer, symptoms such as Trouble sleeping, difficulty concentratingand Muscle tension to be added.

Causes and Risk Factors for a Nervous Breakdown

A nervous breakdown is usually triggered by an event that has a traumatic effect on the person concerned. Often these are situations that are life-threatening for one of the people present.

But even very stressful phases in life, for example through frequent arguments in conflicting partnerships or permanent occupational stress, can lead to a nervous breakdown.

Possible causes of a nervous breakdown include:

  • Mayhem
  • Sexual violence
  • Serious accidents
  • Death of a loved one
  • Robberies
  • Natural disasters
  • terrorist attacks
  • war

In principle, anyone can suffer a nervous breakdown, but some people are more prone than others to develop an acute stress reaction. The risk is increased, for example, with:

  • Certain professional groups, including rescue workers, police officers, soldiers or doctors.
  • Previous exposure to diseases
  • Persistent emotional and / or physical exhaustion
  • Mental instability
  • Lack of coping strategies (coping strategy): Those affected have difficulty dealing with events or life phases that are perceived as difficult.

Treating a nervous breakdown prevents long-term consequences

Immediately after the triggering event, the symptoms should be treated as quickly as possible. Ideally, pastors are available for this after accidents, disasters and other traumatic experiences of shock. Affected people are often first calmed down in special shock rooms in medical facilities.

Psychological help should continue to be sought, especially in the case of previous psychological stress or if those affected are generally mentally unstable. After a nervous breakdown, it is important to maintain social contact and not to isolate yourself so that possible symptoms such as anxiety are not aggravated. In order to process the trauma experienced, it is usually very helpful for those affected to talk to people they know about what they have experienced.

The usual daily routine should not be interrupted if possible. Physical activity, breathing exercises and relaxation techniques, good sleep hygiene and a healthy diet can also help to regain stability more quickly.


If the symptoms persist and the traumatizing event repeatedly catches up with the person in the form of flashbacks or nightmares, professional help should be sought. A specialist in psychotherapy is the right contact here. Trauma-focused psychotherapy, sometimes supplemented with anti-anxiety medication, can help overcome the effects of a nervous breakdown and prevent long-term consequences.

Course and prognosis

With good care, the prognosis after a nervous breakdown is usually favorable. The symptoms often subside after less than 48 hours, and those affected usually no longer feel the consequences of the nervous breakdown after four weeks at the latest. Factors such as a general psychological vulnerability, lack of first aid and if those affected want to deal with what they have experienced after a nervous breakdown, however, increase the risk of long-term consequences.

In order not to risk post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a nervous breakdown should not be lightly dismissed. Affected people should accept feelings such as fear, restlessness and shame and address them with professional help and the support of their close social environment.

Prevent a nervous breakdown

As a rule, traumatic events cannot be avoided. In order to be able to deal with these better, however, it can be helpful to learn coping strategies, also known as "coping". In addition, the following factors can help prevent nervous breakdowns caused by persistent stress:

  • stable social environment
  • Avoidance of excessive demands in the workplace
  • Regular daily routines with sufficient exercise, relaxation, sleep and a balanced diet
  • largely abstaining from alcohol and other drugs
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