I wrote a whole book about having a nervous breakdown… but the truth is that there’s no such thing.

Wait, what? No such thing as a nervous breakdown? Yes, really. There’s no such thing.

When I had a breakdown/lost my mind/went mad the official diagnosis on my sick note was “depression and anxiety.” I referred to this as a nervous breakdown because saying I’m off work with depression and anxiety just didn’t seem to quite cover the level of disruption I was experiencing in my life.

What is a nervous breakdown?

The term “nervous breakdown” is actually a somewhat dated expression that was once used as a sort of catch-all for a wide range of mental illnesses – back in the days when all mental illnesses were considered to be more or less the same (he’s gone mad), and nobody cared or knew enough to distinguish between them. It doesn’t refer to a specific condition but rather to the build-up of emotional stress in various different forms that can cause a person to become unable to deal with day to day life. You are not likely to find a doctor who will diagnose a nervous breakdown, because the diagnosis does not exist.

What happens when you have a nervous breakdown?

The problem with the term “nervous breakdown” is that is has become common parlance; people use it to describe any number of different situations on a sliding scale of severity.

As with many mental illnesses, it’s very subjective. If you have an infection, markers in your blood will definitively show its presence. With mental illness, diagnosis is often done by answering a series of questions about how you feel right now, or how you’ve felt over the last couple of weeks. Your answers can depend on how your day has gone thus far.

Of course, for someone deep in the depths of a depressive episode, it doesn’t matter how their day/week/month has gone so far; they are depressed and they cannot see beyond that. This is how I felt.

When it comes to a nervous breakdown, this is often a self-diagnosis, or something suggested by a third party. Where a GP will diagnose depression, anxiety or even simply sign you off with stress you may feel that you are having a breakdown and choose to call it this. My GP once signed me off with synaptic dysfunction, reasoning that if he said I didn’t have to work then I didn’t have to work and it was nobody’s business why!

The problem with self diagnosis is that there are no lines in the sand. Where there is a helpful questionnaire and scoring system for depression, and even that is subjective, a nervous breakdown is beyond even this.

This means that one person may have a couple of bad weeks where they feel awful and struggle to perform basic tasks – but ultimately are able to come out the other side relatively unscathed – and may call this a nervous breakdown. To them, this was a breakdown; they’re not being disingenuous or somehow misleading people when they refer to having had a nervous breakdown.

On the other hand, you may have someone in a situation like mine, where things fell apart over a period of weeks/months, and I found myself unable to function in daily life. By the end of that year, I had lost my job, most of my friends and my home – almost my life. My life broke down. And to be honest, I know mine is by no means the worst story there is about this sort of thing.

Both of these situations can be called a “nervous breakdown” because there is no official diagnosis; nobody can tell you otherwise. But it does also mean that when you say those words, each person interprets them in a different way. No definition is either right or wrong.

Nervous breakdown symptoms

Because it’s not an official diagnosis, and because of what I’ve mentioned above about how we all interpret the term differently, the symptoms of a nervous breakdown can and do vary wildly between individuals.

For me, a nervous breakdown means that a person has broken down in some way and is not able to function normally in their everyday life. Even this will vary from person to person. For example, one person may get up at 5am every day, go to work in a stressful office environment for 9 hours and then come home. If you put another person into that position, they may find it hard to cope – but that wouldn’t be a nervous breakdown; it would be an inability to deal with someone else’s daily life. They may function perfectly well in their own life.

I think it all depends on what is considered “normal” for any given person. If a person is normally able to do certain things, and finds that they are not, this could be a sign they are experiencing some form of a breakdown.

Symptoms of a nervous breakdown include:

  • Feeling anxious, depressed, overly emotional or irritable
  • Feeling helpless/hopeless
  • Withdrawing from social situations (where one would normally enjoy such a thing)
  • A change in normal sleeping patterns – sleeping a lot or hardly at all
  • Difficulty focusing or remembering details
  • Lacking motivation and interest in life
  • Unexplained physical aches and pains
  • Moving or speaking more slowly than normal

The key here is whether any particular symptom is a break from the norm. Some people always speak and move slowly. Some people always have difficulty with focusing or remembering details. Some people are lifelong insomniacs. And some people (including me) usually avoid social situations.

Final thoughts

The fact there is no official medical term of “nervous breakdown” doesn’t mean that people don’t experience the feeling of breaking down. Yes, using this term does make it difficult to know exactly what is going on or how bad things really are. However, much like with my GP writing synaptic dysfunction on a sick note, if a person feels they’re having a nervous breakdown then that’s what they’re having and it’s not for anyone else to question.

I used to get cross with people saying they were having a nervous breakdown and feeling that they were not having as hard a time as I had experienced. Then I would see people dragging themselves through things that seemed worse than anything I had ever experienced.

Eventually I realised that everyone in this world deserves our compassion.

For me the term “nervous breakdown” means Things are as bad as I can imagine them getting inside my head. It’s all relative; what’s terrible for one might be bearable for another. If someone is going through the worst time they could possibly imagine – even if that seems like nothing in comparison to other people’s suffering – it is the worst thing for them and they deserve support and compassion.


Vicky Charles

Vicky is a single mother, writer and card reader.

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