Nervous breakdown: Signs, symptoms, and treatment
Nervous breakdown: Signs, symptoms, and treatment

Nervous Breakdown


Everyone has a breaking point and in stressful modern society it might be closer than you think. As the pressures of life in our society grow, there has been a noticeable increase in breakdowns.

  • The woman who is running a home, bringing up a family, keeping an imperfect marriage together, and possibly doing a full or part-time job faces stress almost every day of her life.
  • The ambitious man, with family responsibilities, who is determined to make it to the top of his profession and stay there faces constant pressure and stress.
  • The student approaching exams is under intense nervous strain, probably made worse by his knowledge of hopeful parents and job prospects.
  • The young woman expecting an illegitimate child is under stress from social pressures and possibly from financial worries.
  • The woman in her 30s or 40s whose children have grown up and left home may feel a sudden sense of loss, a sense of no longer being needed. She is under stress.

Any of these situations could lead to a nervous breakdown.

The extent to which we cope with stressful situations depends partly on our personality makeup, which may be affected by heredity. To a larger degree it also depends on the amount of stability in our background.

People with histories of broken homes and disturbed childhoods are more vulnerable to stressful situations than those who had a secure upbringing.

Being neurotic means that you have developed certain defense mechanisms in order to survive because you faced great difficulties in your past. Most of us are neurotic to some extent. Having a breakdown means, simply, coming to the end of your tether, being no longer able to cope with life.

People under stress react in body and mind

Dr. Stella Dalton, medical director and president of the Way Back Committee, director of Wistaria House Drug and Alcohol Addiction Centre at Westmead, Sydney, and a consultant psychiatrist, guarantees that a nervous breakdown can be cured. She believes that time itself would cure most breakdowns but that the cure might take years. With a carefully planned treatment of medicine and psychotherapy she can, she says, reduce the time of the cure to a matter of months.

Most of her patients, who are usually referred from their doctors or from health centers, are embarrassed by their predicament and not altogether clear what their problem is. They often complain of their nerves putting anxiety or depression symptoms down to what they believe is a hereditary state.

When people are unable to cope with the stress they react in two ways. They may worry a good deal, not just with their minds but with their bodies. The chemical adrenalin will be excreted into their bloodstream causing sweating palms, “butterflies” in the pit of the stomach, palpitations (heavy heartbeats), diarrhea, headaches, or the feeling of a “lump” in the throat.

They feel as if they were going to erupt. They feel panic-stricken. This is called an anxiety illness.

They may retreat into dark despair from where they can see no hope and no reason for doing anything; where they feel miserably detached from reality and believe they are worthless.

They may weep for no reason at all, or at the slightest provocation. They may feel a sudden irrational sense of dread that something awful is going to happen. They may be lethargic and lack interest, their libido may be diminished, they may have the feeling that living is no longer worth the effort involved.

These are symptoms of depressive illness. There may also be some obsessional behavior such as frequent washing of hands, constant checking of locked doors and windows, or excessive neatness. People usually react with a mixture of both anxiety and depression, with one type of reaction dominating.

Early warning signs of a breakdown are poor sleep patterns and an abnormal diet – eating less than usual or, occasionally, eating more, to compensate. Drinking too much or taking sleeping pills or tranquilizers often amounts to self-medication under stress, rather than to addiction.

To find out whether it is anxiety or depression which has the upper hand, Dr. Dalton, having quizzed her patients about their symptoms, asks – “If I had a magic wand and could remove just one set of symptoms, which would you choose?” She says that the answer always tells her which illness is most severe.

In the beginning a series of setbacks

She then prescribes medication – either anti-anxiety pills or, more usually, anti-depressants. These will chemically relieve the body and the brain of their emotional overload.

After about a week when the patient’s sleep pattern has returned to normal Dr. Dalton begins psycho-therapy in which she tries to find out, in the discussion, the cause of the patient’s breakdown.

There is always a precipitating factor, an occurrence or situation which is aggravating the patient most of the time.

Dr. Dalton does not begin therapy by attacking this sensitive area but by assurance – the assurance that the patient can be cured and that when the cure is complete the symptoms will disappear.

This knowledge alone is enough to relax many fears and tensions.

The reasons for the breakdown, internal and external, are discussed twice a week in therapy until the patient understands how and why it happened. If it should ever happen again then the knowledge of what it is and how it can be treated will save much time and anguish.

The reaction of most people to therapy is an enormous relief and the wish that they had known about it years ago.

Thirty years ago there was no guaranteed cure for a breakdown. Today there is. If you need help, go to your local GP and explain how you feel. If necessary, he will refer you to a specialist. If he does not and you still feel that you need professional help, go to your nearest community health center and talk to the counselor there who will arrange for appropriate therapy.

When a cure is available it seems tragic to put up with the distress of a neurotic condition. Yet there are those who do put up with it. They are the ones who are too frightened or too proud to talk about their symptoms, who take Diazepam and alcohol as palliatives which merely take the edge off anxiety. These drugs last only a few hours and they need to be taken in increasing quantities to remain effective.

Such people are the unknown quantity in the community, the ones who go on struggling, day after day, to maintain an appearance of normality when really they are longing to unload the burden they have been carrying – alone for so long.


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