10 Warning Signs of a Mental Breakdown (And What to Do)

A mental breakdown can be the result of extreme emotional distress.  This stress can be caused by numerous reasons within a person’s life.  While there are several causes to a mental breakdown, from sudden tragedy to financial issues, there are signs to look for that a mental breakdown may be brewing.  

It is inevitable that you will experience some stress within your life.  A mental or nervous breakdown can be defined as intense symptoms of stress that cause a person to become unable to deal with life’s daily activities and challenges.  Learn about the 10 warning signs of a mental breakdown and what to do to work through them. 

Anxiety Becomes Overwhelming

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, anxiety is defined as the feeling of nervousness, dread, and angst. Although, anxiety is common in many people, it might be experienced before taking on something new, handling a new situation or other life activities.  However, depending on how anxiety shows up can be a warning sign to a mental breakdown.

When stress levels are becoming high, your body will go through physical signs of anxiety-like:

  • Body trembling or shaking
  • Stomachache
  • Dizziness
  • Tense muscles
  • Clampy hands
  • High blood pressure

Worrying constantly or overthinking about something can cause anxiety.  These are signs combined with the constant worrying of issues and repeating past traumatic experiences can be a sign to visit a mental health professional.  

Sleep Pattern Changes

Getting the proper amount of rest is extremely important. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 7 hours of sleep for adults.  While this may not be the reality for many people, if you notice a change in your sleeping pattern, whether you’re sleeping more or not enough, it could be a sign of a mental breakdown.  

When you no longer are getting enough hours of sleep, it can lead to other health issues. For example, lack of sleep can cause an inability to concentrate. In addition, if you are stressed, it can show in the form of insomnia and ultimately cause extreme fatigue.   

Insomnia Can Contribute to Mental Breakdown

Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep.  While one or two nights of sleep may not be a concern, if your lack of sleep turns into insomnia, there is an underlying reason why.  The exhaustion or lack of energy you will experience can wear on you and cause a breakdown mentally.  

Responding to Stress by Oversleeping 

Sleeping longer than 8 hours a day on the regular can be a warning sign.  While stress can cause exhaustion, the constant feeling of fatigue coupled with feeling low is when you should seek advice from your doctor.  Oversleeping alone is not a sign by itself. However, if your mood is low, it may lead to a mental breakdown or even be a sign of depression.

Extreme Changes in Mood

A sudden behavior change can be a sign of a mental breakdown. For example, if you are getting angry easily when you once were known to keep a cool head, this is behavior that could indicate stress.  More than just getting angry, extreme mood changes or mood swings are signs that need to be addressed.  

From crying uncontrollably or being irritable, stress can sway emotions drastically.  The source of the stress and the mood swings can be the same.  These mood changes can be partnered with feeling overwhelmed and could affect how you are towards others.  

Signs of Extreme Mood Changes:

  • Easily angered
  • Irritability
  • Uncontrollable Crying
  • Low self-esteem

Rapid shifts in your mood could be a sign of underlying mental health issues.  If the mood swings are frequently happening, this should be taken seriously.  Consult with your doctor because your mood changes could be related to mental or physical health problems.

Noticeable Changes in Diet

A change in your diet can be a warning sign that stress is affecting your mental health. For example, stress hormones can contribute to a desire to overeat or loss of appetite.  Your desire to do either is rooted in stress and can be a sign you are in the middle of a breakdown or one is approaching.

Overeating When Stressed Out

Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases the craving for foods high in fat and sugar.  While this is your body’s natural response to stress, overindulging and eating solely based on stress is a sign of mental breakdown.  When it is longer stressful situations your body is placed in, then overeating can evolve into other mental health related issues.  

Worry May Result in Loss of Appetite

There are a host of reasons, non-mental health related, that you have a loss of appetite.  It could be due to a physical illness, changes in your age or a reaction to certain medication, to name a few.  Then there are times where you have a loss of appetite, but nothing has drastically changed with your physical health or within your life.  

The loss of appetite can occur because your focus is not on your diet but distracted by stressors or worries.  The ability to care for yourself and prepare meals may be overwhelming.  This falls into a pattern that anxiety and mood swings may also show.  How you take care of yourself it not a concern and could be a noticeably clear sign to address any mental health issues.  

Withdrawal from Family and Friends

Withdrawing from everyone within your life can be a sign of mental breakdown.  Pulling away from friends, family, and coworkers because you don’t have the energy or desire to engage is usually accompanied with other signs of mental stress.  Avoiding social functions altogether is another indicator that something needs to be addressed from within.

In addition to ignoring engagements with others, you may find that you are losing interest in your favorite activities.  It is more than just a change of mind. The things you used to take joy in doing, you find yourself unable to even try them anymore.  This could lead to other mental health issues like depression.  

Also, pay attention to your actions at work as well.  While taking time for yourself is important, when on the verge of a mental breakdown, you may find yourself calling off work at an alarming pace.  Or you may not even show up for work, which could be seen as out of your ordinary behavior. Likewise, the desire to isolate at home and withdraw from everyone is a warning sign.  

Feeling of Hopelessness 

Worrying about things is normal and occurs at one point in everyone’s life.  When worrying constantly turns your thoughts to hopelessness, it may be harder to pull yourself out of that negative space.  Feeling hopeless can be an overwhelming sadness that turns into more serious mental health issues.  

Hopelessness, or feeling helpless, can stem from financial hardships to the loss of a loved one.  There are many reasons for feeling like nothing will get better.  This feeling, if left unchecked, can interfere with your daily activities.  Coupled with other signs of a mental breakdown, low self-esteem and hopelessness will only contribute further to a breakdown.

Panic Attacks are Occurring

A panic attack is defined as experiencing intense fear or discomfort that peaks in a few minutes.  Not to be confused with a mental breakdown, panic attacks are not prolonged like a mental breakdown tends to be.  With a panic attack, your body will give you clear signs such as:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Detachment from reality
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Light-headed or feeling faint
  • Experiencing chills or feeling hot
  • Tingling sensation
  • Sweating
  • Fearfulness (of dying or losing control)

Panic attacks can occur at any time, and sometimes there are no obvious triggers right before the attack happens.  Just experiencing panic attacks alone is not a warning sign of a mental breakdown.  However, panic attacks are happening for a reason and should be checked out to determine what is causing your body stress. 

Unexplained Aches and Pains

When you are experiencing a mental breakdown, your body is going through a high level of stress.  This stress may show in ways such as headaches, insomnia and even muscle tension.  Your body may become tense, and you don’t even realize it until it shows in the form of pain.  

By holding in your stress and not releasing it in a healthy way, unexplained aches and pains may occur.  In combination with other warning signs like anxiety, having that anxious feeling continuously takes a toll on the body over time.  

Emotions unchecked over time can cause physical health issues.  Psychosomatic disorder is an example of the body’s reaction to an increased emotion that was sustained long enough to cause the body damage.  Unexplained body aches and pain is your body reacting to the constant stress.  If you are experiencing this, it could be a sign of a mental breakdown, and you should consult with your doctor.

Thoughts of Self-Harm or Suicide

Being in a depressive state can turn into thoughts of self-harm or even suicide.  Your mental state is extremely fragile and if you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 immediately.  

Self-harm but non-suicidal can be a sign that a mental breakdown is on the verge.  With self-harm, the intent is to relieve emotional distress but not to die.  If you or someone you know is:

  • Cutting
  • Scratching
  • Burning
  • Head-banging

Harming yourself on purpose is a sign that should not be taken lightly.  This is a red flag that the way stress is being dealt with is not healthy.  Being able to recognize that self-harm and suicidal thoughts are not a healthy way to deal with stress or trauma is a big step.  This won’t be easy, however, if you or someone you know is self-harming, it may be a sign to more mental health issues that could lead to a severe breakdown.

Coping with Drugs and Medications

Relying on drugs and medications can be a form of self-harm since these things can cause major damage to your body.  The abuse of medications is a way to cope with stress, and in doing so, it can lead to a dependency on the drug itself.  This lack of control results from stress and not being able to deal in a healthy way.

While mental health issues can lead to drug abuse, it can also start with the abuse of drugs that affect your mental health.  As the adverse effects can go both ways, drug and medication abuse to cope with your stress is a sign a mental breakdown is coming.  Drugs and stress can be a dangerous combination since there are certain drugs that can alter the brain and distort your thinking.  

The signs of substance abuse can be like that of a mental breakdown.  When someone is showing:

  • Withdrawal
  • Hopelessness
  • Change in diet
  • Change in sleep
  • Lack of focus/concentration

Warning signs can be overlapped and when seen together, they should be taken as a warning.  The diagnosis of why someone is abusing drugs can vary and should be handled with care.  With drugs, the body may need medical intervention to ensure a healthy recovery.

What to Do When a Mental Breakdown Occurs

The inability to cope with life’s challenges can cause several symptoms of stress.  Stress, if not handled, can lead to a mental breakdown.  While prevention would be the ideal solution to address mental breakdowns, you may have overlooked the warning signs.  Now, if you or someone you know is currently in a mental breakdown, what should you do?

Be Non-judgmental and Create a Safe Space

If you are with someone that is having a mental breakdown, you should remain calm.  Provide the person with a listening ear, and do not be judgmental.  If the signs were not apparent to you, the person might reveal how their life has changed.  

Give grace to yourself or the person that is experiencing the mental breakdown.  Make sure a safe space is created and that the individual is not in harm’s way.  Once that is established, deciding the next steps to cope and move on from the mental breakdown should include connecting with a mental health professional.  

Eliminate Certain Items from Diet

While a change in your diet is a warning sign of a mental breakdown, eliminating certain items from your diet may help your nerves. For example, caffeine is a staple for many people, and going without their daily dose of coffee or caffeinated beverage can be hard to ask.  However, overconsumption of caffeine has been proven to have negative side effects such as irritability and troubled sleep

Turning to alcohol in hopes of changing your mood for the better can be detrimental.  Alcohol alters your thinking and strips you of the ability to control your emotions.  It not only alters your mental state, if abused and overused, it can cause serious health problems.  If you or someone you know has an alcohol abuse problem, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can help find a support group for you. 

Make Life Adjustments

Making life adjustments extend beyond changing a diet.  If you notice one of the earlier warning signs to a mental breakdown, take steps to adjust your life and alleviate specific stressors.  Practicing self-care is an important thing to do daily for your well-being.

Self-care can look different for everyone.  The goal is to take time out for yourself and improve your well-being.  This could include:

  • Prioritizing exercise 
  • Alternative therapies 
  • Yoga 
  • Meditation  

For some, journaling daily can help deal with stress.  Other activities can be a simple as walking, breathing exercises, or practicing mindfulness. 

Finding ways to control your response to stressful situations is essential.  Self-care is a wide range of things you can do for yourself.  Ranging from physical activities to psychological, taking care of your well-being is important and will help in a mental breakdown.

Speak to a Professional

Experiencing a mental breakdown means your mental state is fragile.  When stress isn’t being handled and it becomes overwhelming, it may be hard to pull yourself out of that state.  A mental health professional is experienced in treating mental breakdowns.  

A professional may recommend different types of therapy such as talk therapy.  This is also known as psychotherapy; a licensed therapist will speak with the patient and “talk through” their problems to uncover the source of their emotional distress. 

Another type of therapy that may be recommended is cognitive-behavioral therapy.  This therapy can help recognize your behavior to make changes to control your mental state in a healthy way. They will be able to discern if there are underlying mental health issues that could be detrimental.

Remember You Are Not Alone

While only you can do the work to heal, you do not have to go through it alone.  Speak to a mental health professional or therapist and learn how to cope with stress.

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Links used:

Anxiety: MedlinePlus

CDC – How Much Sleep Do I Need? – Sleep and Sleep Disorders

Chronic stress puts your health at risk – Mayo Clinic

Panic attacks and panic disorder – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic

Psychosomatic disorder | pathology | Britannica

Lifeline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org)

Self-harm | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

Too much coffee? (apa.org)

SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357) | SAMHSA

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