Mental Breakdowns: When the Mind and Body Reach Their Limit

Negative thoughts, burnout, problems concentrating...What's happening? These are typical signs of a mental breakdown. In this article, we tell you more about the symptoms and how you can manage it.
Mental Breakdowns: When the Mind and Body Reach Their Limit
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Reaching your limit…Unable to do anything…Feeling like the weight of the world has fallen on your shoulders… Struggling to remember things or make decisions…We experience all of this when we suffer from mental breakdowns, a state that develops from an intense and prolonged state of stress.

Physical and emotional exhaustion are constants right now. For instance, not only are we under more stress in the workplace but if one thing is clear, our ball of worries just keeps getting bigger, which in turn negatively affects our mood. As such, we feel overwhelmed and are in a deliberating psychological state. This can subsequently cause health complications.

As Pablo Neruda used to say, sometimes we even get tired of being people. Well, maybe he’s right. H uman beings get themselves involved in increasingly complex and demanding scenarios that later take their toll. If it’s common to feel blocked and weak, we must understand why, and how we can manage it.

Mental breakdowns: What are they and what are the symptoms?

A mental breakdown isn’t a disorder in itself, nor is it a diagnosable clinical condition. In fact, it’s actually a symptom that an intense state of stress can cause. It’s often a response to adverse circumstances and can happen after receiving bad news, living through a traumatic event, or dealing with an especially emotional breakup, etc.

In other words, it can happen after a highly emotional life event. As mentioned in a study by Leipzig University in Germany, “a mental breakdown is related to a state of elevated stress, which leads to feeling physically and psychologically exhausted.”

Whilst in that state, the brain releases an excess of neurochemicals, like adrenaline or cortisol, making us feel overwhelmed. This accumulation of emotions, feelings, and psychological changes can end up affecting our cognitive capacity and our physical resistance.

depressed man with his head in his hands
The main cause of mental breakdowns is an unmanaged state of stress that ends up mentally consuming us.

You may also be interested in: 5 Ways to Cope With Social Anxiety

Symptoms associated with mental breakdowns

Some people call it a ‘nervous crisis’ but in reality that isn’t the same thing. Whilst external symptoms like feeling stressed or overwhelmed, feeling intense emotions, and nervousness usually accompanies a nervous crisis, in mental breakdowns, however, we see a mental block. Below, we go into a bit more detail.

Psychological symptoms to expect if you’re dealing with a mental breakdown

  • Problems concentrating
  • Difficulty reasoning; you may find yourself in a sort of mental haze
  • Memory problems
  • Feeling out of touch with reality, as if your surroundings aren’t real
  • Mood changes; feeling irritable or apathetic is especially common
  • Inability to do daily tasks as normal; lack of motivation, desire, and ability to focus on what you’re doing

Physical symptoms

Additionally, there are multiple physical symptoms associated with mental breakdowns. That said, the intensity of these symptoms will be worse the longer you deal with the stress. On average, these symptoms are as follows:

  • Constant exhaustion, and feeling that no matter how much you try or want to, you struggle to react to things
  • Muscular pain, especially in the limbs
  • Changes to your sleeping pattern, insomnia or, contrastingly, sleeping excessively
  • Pressure in your chest or increased heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Experiencing headaches
  • The feeling that you’re moving slower than normal

How can we manage mental breakdowns?

Is there a kind of treatment for mental breakdowns? Unfortunately, no, not one. In fact, these  psychological conditions require a multidimensional coping strategy. Let’s analyze some of the key points.

Stress relief technique 

This technique focuses on part of Lazarus and Folkman’s model for stress management. It consists of applying a series of techniques that aim to soothe the stress bit by bit. However, to do that, we need to develop a series of abilities with the objective to create new, healthy thought patterns, and reduce anxiety in turn.

The following steps may help you do this:

  • Cognitive restructuring: identify negative thoughts and obsessions and replace them with healthier ones
  • Use relaxation techniques, like deep breathing
  • Initiate new changes in routines to manage stress. Ask yourself what changes you need to feel better. Sometimes, our well-being can improve when we distance ourselves from certain situations and start new projects
  • Learn emotion-management techniques
Woman breathing deeply not stressed
One method we can use to manage a mental breakdown is learning problem-resolution techniques. It’s also a good idea to practice relaxation techniques.

Keep reading: Five Mindfulness Exercises for Anxiety

Problem-resolution techniques

Here’s an interesting fact: an excess of undealt with problems is a huge catalyst for mental breakdowns. It’s like before we even notice, one problem mixes with another; we don’t know how to solve some issues, and then they all become jumbled.

After this happens, we begin to feel overwhelmed and mentally blocked. When dealing with this very common situation, it’s important to learn a series of techniques. Below, we explain some steps that may help.

  • Identify the problem and describe it
  • Divide it into smaller parts. After all, each challenge or worry is actually made up of multiple units.
  • Clarify what you want to achieve
  • Get a pen and some paper, and brainstorm solutions. Don’t just stick to one; the point of this exercise is to write down several possible solutions
  • Apply these solutions
  • Value the actions you took: was the result what you had expected it to be?
  • Manage the emotions that come up at every stage

We can handle mental breakdowns

Overall, we should keep in mind that in times of crisis or uncertainty it’s very common to suffer a mental breakdown. Dedicating time to ourselves, tending to our needs, and including healthy coping techniques for stress in our lives can help.

It goes without saying that if we’re unable to manage these emotions, the best course of action is to seek professional help. A meeting with a psychological professional is key to discovering other coping techniques to manage your breakdown.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Azizoddin, D. R., Jolly, M., Arora, S., Yelin, E., & Katz, P. (2020). Longitudinal Study of Fatigue, Stress, and Depression: Role of Reduction in Stress Toward Improvement in Fatigue. Arthritis Care and Research72(10), 1440–1448.
  • Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017, July 21). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI Journal. Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors.
  • Kocalevent, R. D., Hinz, A., Brähler, E., & Klapp, B. F. (2011). Determinants of fatigue and stress. BMC Research Notes4.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.