“I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.” Many of us have been there or said something like this. A quick search of the internet reveals that most mental health professionals don’t view “nervous breakdown” as a clinical term. It is not something that any of us can be diagnosed with. At the same time, the term does mean something – but what, exactly? There may not be an exact answer to this question.
What is a Nervous Breakdown?A nervous breakdown can refer to one or more of a pretty long list of negative symptoms and experiences. Another quick web search reveals the following possibilities:
Symptoms of anxiety
You may be experiencing racing thoughts. You may find yourself plagued with what-if scenarios and statements. Typically, what-if questions involve pondering the worst possible thing that could happen (e.g. – “what if my spouse leaves me?”). It is one thing to have an answer to this question, but often, the answer is “I don’t have any idea what I would do.” It is that feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the mere effort of trying to even imagine what this scenario would be like.
Symptoms of depression
You have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Sometimes we wake up with feelings of being utterly unmotivated. If this is a condition that has lasted for some time, it may be a diagnosable state of depression, but other factors need to be in place in addition to the timeline for this to be so. Still, you may feel too depressed to accomplish normal tasks and activities. Or you may find yourself losing interest in something that would normally be a no-brainer for you. The things that brought you joy no longer do.
Inability to concentrate
A more common term for this condition is “brain fog” – you simply cannot seem to keep focused on a given task, especially if it is one that requires a bit more discipline to stick to, as opposed to something that would typically immediately interest you.
For example, your performance at work suffers because you find that your mind too often wanders back to the source of stress. Additionally, it could be that your mind ponders the possibility of something bad happening, similar to the symptoms briefly explored under Symptoms of Anxiety, above.
It may be easy to jump to the conclusion that there is some sort of Attention Deficit Disorder situation happening, and it may be tempting to seek some sort of medication. Seeking to medicate the inability to concentrate with caffeine is a very common example. “I need a pick-me-up.” But be careful – overdoing it with caffeine can increase anxiety and make this situation worse.
Feeling physically weak or overly tired
These symptoms can have a lot in common with symptoms of depression. It can feel as if the entire body is much heavier than normal and can feel as if you are carrying a backpack full of weight that makes it difficult to even want to move around.Sometimes it can feel like walking through sludge – the mere anticipation of how long it will take to complete a task can be enough to discourage you from even trying in the first place. Everything seems heavy.
It is well documented that physical activity for as little as 10-15 minutes can go a long way toward changing or elevating a negative mood state. Still, when these physical symptoms of heaviness are present, it makes it even harder to actually get up and get moving – to do the very thing that may actually counteract the symptoms.
Changes in sleep pattern
Sleep can be affected by stress either or a combo of ways. When sleep gets affected, we can find ourselves not being able to sleep, or the opposite – wanting to sleep all of the time. Sleep can be a “safe place” in a time of stress, a way to shut out the negative thoughts and possibilities of negative events at least for a little while.
The word “breakdown” in the term “nervous breakdown” is telling, not just for this symptom, but for all of the symptoms listed in this article. Things aren’t “working” as they should. Anyone who has experienced insomnia knows that it can often be a very unpleasant combination of wanting to sleep but not being able to. The very thought “I need to sleep!” can cycle into enough of an anxious cycle that sleep becomes even more unlikely. Insufficient sleep can produce any one or a combination of the symptoms mentioned here.
Eating too much or not enough
Food can often have numerous deep emotional associations. Food means different things to different people depending on upbringing, cultural traditions, the presence/absence of traumatic events connected to body image, or even mealtimes. There are other sources of food confusion as well.
When it comes to the “nervous breakdown,” it can be tempting to eat too much to medicate symptoms of emotional discomfort or stress. It is also plausible that you may be driven to not eat at all. Eating may become just one more thing to think about, so it gets overlooked, pushed aside, and/or neglected. The very meaning of food itself can come to the surface or shift depending on the source of the “nervous breakdown” experience.
The “difficulty” here could refer to experiencing shortness of breath, a tight chest, the inability or unwillingness to take deep or long breaths, or just breathing quickly and “mindlessly” (as opposed to mindfully). I am providing this symptom last because attentive breathing is one of the first lines of defense when “I think I am having a nervous breakdown.”
How to Take Action
1. Pay attention to your breathing
Breathing is an “action gateway.” If you notice that your breathing is shallow, you can begin to pay attention to the way you are breathing. Often simply noticing how you breathe can cause you to see that the nature of your breath is changing. In other words, just by taking notice of your breathing, you can see the quality of the breath begin to change, becoming fuller, deeper, more intentional, longer, and more effective at delivering oxygen to the body.Many of us have experienced the sensation of not getting enough air. Having a panic attack can be a frightening experience, as it often presents in ways that make us feel that the body is taking over. Breath is a unique phenomenon of being a living, embodied human being. Breathing is pretty much always happening whether or not we are conscious of it.
One of the reasons many contemplative traditions have valued breathwork is because of this unique quality of the breath to be both conscious and unconscious. When we think about it, we can control aspects of the breath like depth, length, or even “breathing to” the stomach as opposed to the chest.
Even if our mind wanders, the breath continues on. There can be therapeutic value for those experiencing the symptoms of a nervous breakdown in exploring this quality of the breath. Most likely, even just by reading this paragraph, you noticed your breath and breathed a little differently. Breathing perhaps became conscious, if only for a moment or two. What was this like for you?
2. Get in touch with your body again to soothe your mind
Bessel Van der Kolk is one of the foremost theorists in the world on trauma recovery. He began specializing in trauma recovery several years ago, and almost from the beginning he noticed that a common feature of being negatively affected by trauma is dissociating or detaching from the body and/or bodily sensations.
This does not mean having an out-of-body experience, although such an experience has been recounted by more than one trauma survivor. Instead, he defined it as the tendency to feel “unsafe in the body” due to a traumatic experience or event. As a result, the trauma-affected individual may detach themselves or become numb to certain bodily sensations, even suppressing entire areas of sensation.
Van Der Kolk states: “Traumatized people often are terrified of the sensations in their own bodies. Most trauma-sensitive people need some form of body-oriented psychotherapy.” Evidence shows that the same can be true for anyone who has been under long-term/chronic stress.
Prolonged stress can lead to sensations not only of panic but of numbness, sometimes simultaneously. Massage, yoga, stretching, light aerobic activity, dance, or simple somatic-experiencing (non-sexual touching with a partner) can all be ways to get back in touch with our bodies and make being “in the body” start to feel safe and normal again.
3. Make something and give yourself the freedom to stink
I discovered the power of freewriting through a friend back in my college days, long before I ever dreamed of becoming a therapist. I found myself going through a lot of stress as a young father, as well as trying to endure the relational stress of my marriage which was just beginning a long period of unravelling. Sometimes feelings of stress, anxiety, and bodily discomfort would become so overwhelming that I wanted to either scream or run out of the house.
My friend introduced me to a writing-mindfulness practice that involves simply setting a timer, sitting down with pen and notebook, and writing whatever is happening in the mind. It looks like this (and this is for those of you who may read this and immediately respond “But I don’t know what to write,” or “I’m not a writer,” or “I hate writing”). Start with the first thing you hear yourself thinking.
For example: “This is stupid. I don’t know what to write. My butt hurts and I hate this chair. I have better things to do than this. She is so mean to me. What are we going to have for dinner? Man, my chest feels tight. How am I going to finish that project on time?” Anyone who has done a practice like this, or has tried to meditate or pray in a more traditional sense can recognize the pattern in the example given here: there isn’t one! The mind is messy.Here is an odd thing that both I and many others have noticed: by giving yourself the space to express your disorganized messy self without expectations or corrections (this is important!) you will often find that the pressure decreases if only a little bit. For some reason, writing practice brings relief, even if you’re not a writer.
Often, I didn’t even know what was going to come out. I just knew I needed to write due to overwhelming emotional discomfort, racing thoughts, or stress. I simply sat down to write. Sometimes the “reason” for my discomfort remained unknown until about 10-15 minutes into writing, and then I found myself writing something that made sense of it all, like, “Oh! So that is what is happening!” This is a common experience. Writing is a powerful tool. Try it.
4. Talk to a professional counselor or someone you’ve come to deeply trust
I was blessed to receive my counseling training at a school that stressed the importance of self-care as well as personal presence. A lot of us newer counselors-in-training would experience stress over not knowing just the right thing to say to make our clients feel better right away. But the truth is that it is often not about the technique or the smart answer or remembering that awesome book quote or Bible verse. It is knowing that your presence is enough.
This is true for both practitioner and client. One of my teachers was fond of saying “never underestimate the value of your personal presence.” He was correct! Sometimes the most helpful thing when you think you are “having a nervous breakdown” is simply to be heard
I think this is part of why writing practice can be so powerful and effective. The page is listening and by taking the time to sit and write, we hear ourselves more clearly. We get heard, at least on that level.
Talking to a professional counselor can provide a similar benefit, with the added bonus that you have the eyes and ears of someone trained and trustworthy, someone to sit with you and walk with you through the darkness and discomfort. Someone that will check in with you and help you not only mark your progress but work with you to forge a path for future healing and growth.
If anything here resonates with you, and you need someone to simply hear you out and help you find your way again, please reach out to me or one of the other counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling. We are here for you.
Part 2 will explore the Christian (biblical) side of this topic.
“Stressed Out”, Courtesy of Christopher Lemercier, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bonfire”, Courtesy of Benjamin DeYoung, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Man at the Crossroads”, Courtesy of Vladislav Babienko, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Journaling”, Courtesy of Kat Stokes, Unsplash.com, CC0 License