What Is an Emotional Breakdown?

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What Is an Emotional Breakdown?

Emotional Breakdown

An emotional breakdown, also known as a nervous breakdown, mental breakdown, or mental health crisis, is a period of severe emotional distress, where a person may feel paralyzed and entirely incapable of coping with life’s challenges, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

You may have heard the phrase emotional breakdown fairly often, or even used it yourself and wondered what exactly it means.

Metaphorically speaking, an emotional breakdown can be likened to a total tire blowout that has a car stranded on the side of the road, according to the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah.

It’s important to note that an emotional breakdown isn’t a formal mental health diagnosis, explains Dr. Romanoff. Rather, she explains that the phrase is used informally as an umbrella term that can encompass several mental health conditions.

“What makes an emotional breakdown distinct is that there are almost always intense symptoms of stress and paralysis where the person finds themselves incapable of functioning,” says Dr. Romanoff.

This article explores the symptoms and causes of an emotional breakdown, as well as some steps you can take if you’re experiencing a mental health crisis.

Symptoms of an Emotional Breakdown

These are some of the thoughts that you may have if you’re experiencing an emotional breakdown:

  • “I’m losing control.”
  • “Everything is going wrong and I don’t know what to do.”
  • “I’m mentally, physically, and emotionally overwhelmed.”
  • “I’m stuck and cannot function.”
  • “It’s not going to be all right.”
  • “I can’t do this. I give up.”
  • “I just want it to end.”

Additionally, you may also experience certain emotional and physical symptoms while you’re approaching or experiencing an emotional breakdown.

Emotional Symptoms

According to Dr. Romanoff, an emotional breakdown may be accompanied by emotional symptoms such as:

  • A feeling of being on edge
  • An extreme sense of doom
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Feelings of intense sadness, worry, anxiety, fear, or nervousness
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, powerlessness, or shame
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings, or emotional outbursts
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Isolation and a tendency to avoid work and social settings
  • Changes in the way one views the world, themselves, and others
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Physical Symptoms

According to Dr. Romanoff, an emotional breakdown may be accompanied by physical symptoms such as:

  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Nightmares
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Poor eating habits
  • Shaking and tremors
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as cramps or an upset stomach

Causes of an Emotional Breakdown

These are some of the potential causes of an emotional breakdown, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Family turmoil
  • Financial difficulties
  • Loss of a job or business
  • Personal tragedy or setback
  • Racism, discrimination, or hate crimes
  • Relationship difficulties, such as a fight, breakup, or divorce
  • Severe injury or illness
  • Trauma 
  • Violence
  • Work or school stress

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Triggers usually involve a significant and unexpected stressor that overwhelms the person’s capacity to cope.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Everyone’s tolerance for stress is different. Every individual has their own “set point” beyond which they can’t handle things anymore.

Diagnosing an Emotional Breakdown

If you think you’re experiencing an emotional breakdown, Dr. Romanoff recommends making an appointment with your regular healthcare provider—this could include a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or even your primary care physician.

A healthcare provider can complete a comprehensive evaluation, suggest treatment options, and work with you to develop a treatment plan to address your symptoms, says Dr. Romanoff.

There is no diagnosis for an emotional breakdown in mental health manuals such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fifth Edition (DSM-5) or the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems: 11th Revision (ICD 11), says Dr. Romanoff. 

Depending on your symptoms and their intensity, your healthcare provider will determine whether you have a mental health condition such as a depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder, or an acute stress disorder, and provide treatment accordingly, says Dr. Romanoff. 

If not, they can still provide therapy and support that can help you cope with the challenges you’re experiencing.

Coping With an Emotional Breakdown

Dr. Romanoff suggests some steps that can help you cope with an emotional breakdown.

Get Some Perspective

Take a step back from the stressor and try to get some perspective on it. This could mean talking to an objective person, a friend, or a trusted loved one to help you view the situation from a different lens and find alternative ways to cope. 

Focus on Self-Care

Focus on self-care and then re-approach the situation instead of trying to white-knuckle yourself through a problem.

Usually, it’s the basic small steps that make the biggest difference. This includes getting at least seven hours of sleep per night, eating healthy whole foods, and exercising. These are crucial elements that are universally needed for effective functioning.

The challenge is that people experiencing emotional breakdowns and severe stress may not have the ability or resources to do these things. People with anxiety may struggle to fall and stay asleep. Those with depression may struggle to sleep at night but sleep a lot during the day. And people coping with financial problems may not have the resources available to obtain healthy food, particularly if they live in food deserts.

Some other ways that you can implement self-care include:

  • Disconnecting from electronics and social media
  • Developing good sleep hygiene habits
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables
  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing and grounding techniques
  • Writing in a gratitude journal
  • Engaging in more movement each day, whether that means following an exercise routine, going for a short walk, or turning on some music and dancing around the house

When people face stressors, they tend to neglect some of those domains, which only weakens their ability to cope and makes them assume the stressor is much worse than it is in reality.

Once you have these things down, you will probably find that your perspective on the stressor has improved, and your perceived ability to cope with it has increased. 

Seek Treatment and Support

If you’re experiencing an emotional breakdown or struggling to cope, it can be helpful to see a mental healthcare provider. They will be able to determine whether you have a mental health condition and offer treatment accordingly. If not, they can still help you put your challenges in perspective and help you develop the coping skills you need to face them.

A Word From Verywell

An emotional breakdown is the point where we feel like we can’t handle things anymore and give up. Everyone has a different capacity for stress and so this point looks different for each of us.

While a problem can feel overwhelming when you’re wrapped up in it, it can be helpful to take a step back, take care of yourself, get help, and then re-approach it with a fresh perspective.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cleveland Clinic. Nervous breakdown.

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  4. Monteiro NM, Balogun SK, Oratile KN. Managing stress: The influence of gender, age and emotion regulation on coping among university students in Botswana. Int J Adolesc Youth. 2014;19(2):153-173. doi:10.1080/02673843.2014.908784

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.