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Mental Breakdown: What It Is and How to Cope

by Busines Newswire
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Most of us can recall times when the mounting pressures, uncertainties, and general heaviness of daily life finally reached that critical boiling point, and we felt ourselves nearing the brink of stability. Our minds and emotions became so overwhelmed that continuing to function “normally” felt impossible. This experience of temporarily breaking down psychologically in response to escalating stressors has a name—a mental breakdown.

For all their painful intensity, however, mental breakdowns in and of themselves do not constitute a psychiatric disorder or emergency scenario necessarily. Rather, they serve as critical warning signs indicating an urgent need to relieve the burden on our overtaxed minds before matters progress into a more malignant or chronic state of dysfunction. By understanding the drivers behind mental breakdowns and having actionable coping strategies in place, we can mitigate the fallout from these disorienting psychological events when they strike. 

What is a Mental Breakdown?

In both clinical and common terms, a mental breakdown refers to an episode of acute psychological distress during which someone becomes unable to manage mounting mental/emotional strain healthily. Coping abilities essentially become Hindered or paralyzed for a period by the accumulation of severe stressors, uncertainties, pressures, or emotional pain surpassing one’s typical capacity to process.

Breakdown features can vary but generally involve combinations of:

  • Extreme emotional reactivity – excessive episodes of crying, outbursts of anger or frustration, feeling wound up internally
  • Overwhelming anxiety, dread, or feeling psychologically “stuck”
  • Diminished functioning – inability to complete normal responsibilities and self-care tasks
  • Disordered thinking and concentration troubles like mind racing or going blank
  • Feeling detached from oneself or one’s surroundings
  • Regressive behaviors – isolation, emotional volatility, poor self-regulation

Hallmark breakdown traits centering on the sudden inability to manage stressful stimuli adaptively help distinguish them from formal psychiatric crises like psychotic breaks from reality or suicidal states requiring immediate emergency response. However, mental breakdowns should be recognized as sentinel warnings that one’s customary mechanisms for sustaining stability are faltering. 

Common Triggers Behind Mental Breakdowns

Mental breakdowns commonly unfold in the wake of exposure to specific stressors overloading our capacity to process stimuli adaptively. Triggers may be singular major upheavals or an accumulation of multiple concerns building over days, weeks, or longer until we finally reach an emotional limit.

Common catalysts behind breakdowns include:

  • External crises – the death of a loved one, natural disasters, divorce or breakups, job loss, financial hardship, traumatic events involving threats to safety, global events like political turmoil or public health scares
  • Major life changes demanding significant adaptation even when desired – having a baby, moving, transitioning careers
  • Caregiving responsibilities escalating into burnout – struggling with relentless medical problems in family members
  • Interpersonal conflicts – dynamics with toxic peers, betrayals of trust, abusive relationships
  • Mental health conditions worsening – depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD flare-ups
  • Physical health struggles – chronic illnesses, accidents, conditions causing pain and life disruption

How to Stop a Mental Breakdown in its Tracks

When we recognize a looming breakdown stampeding our way based on escalating emotions and our own known mental health patterns, taking swift, compassionate action can empower us to de-escalate rather than descend into dysfunction. Key evidence-based strategies include:

1. Create Emotional and Cognitive Distance

Gaining literal or metaphorical distance between oneself and any immediate stimuli triggering rising emotional flooding offers space to pause the frenzied mental momentum. Options like taking several solo vacation days from work, placing toxic relationships on temporary hold, or postponing major decisions during vulnerable times can provide some objective separation. Other means to generate mental space if unable to step away from responsibilities include mindfulness and grounding techniques, as well as staying focused on the present.

2. Align Support Systems

Calling on people across our support network who are willing and able to act as listening ears and caring companions can make the emotional weight of breakdown triggers feel less solitary. Even just scheduling brief daily check-ins with trusted friends or family via text, email, or call when managing life alone feels tenuous can bolster coping capacity before we reach an abyss. For those undergoing more persistent struggles, arranging regular appointments to confide in counselors or clergy can prevent total isolation.

3. Reduce Input and Demands

Taking inventory of daily demands during mounting instability and actively shedding unnecessary tasks or input streams can significantly ease cognitive load as a preventative measure. We may require temporarily delegating certain family or workplace responsibilities to others, decluttering schedules of optional commitments that can wait, and limiting news/media intake likely to fuel angst rather than inform. Setting firm boundaries with those making unfair emotional or practical demands also falls under reducing breakdown-provoking input.

4. Stabilize Biological Needs

Attending to diet, sleep schedules, hydration levels, fresh air, and movement requires little effort but pays exponential dividends for emotional stability by ensuring our basic bodily systems and brain chemistry remain balanced. When we allow such needs to go neglected for prolonged periods while trying to power through, eventual breakdowns grow predictable. Taking a daily inventory of what our minds and bodies require and addressing deficits lowers the odds of collapse.

5. Access Additional Support If Needed

For those with histories of mental health challenges or who have undergone previous breakdowns, recognizing when our typical self-care toolkit fails is crucial. When symptoms mount and self-care is not enough, it’s important to take action. Securing appointments with psychiatrists or therapists becomes a necessary step. 

Alternatively, checking into respite care centers can offer more intensive support. These actions prevent issues from escalating into crisis territory. Knowing your personal warning signs and where to turn for help prevents manageable situations from escalating into emergencies requiring hospitalization.

Determining the Necessity of Professional Help

Distress from most mental breakdowns generally subsides within days or a few weeks once the instigating stressors ease and our emergency mental responses deactivate. However, recurring breakdowns in response to minor triggers or continuous struggles resuming key roles and responsibilities may signal the need to step up care:

Consider seeking mental health evaluations if you:

  • Previously received psychiatric diagnoses now require more robust treatment
  • Experience breakdown symptoms persisting extensively without relief
  • Feel unable to independently perform essential functions of work, academics, or relationships
  • Have upcoming obligations unable to be postponed but feel too vulnerable mentally
  • Suffer thoughts of self-harm, suicidal urges, or psychosis

Getting assessed by psychologists or psychiatrists following breakdowns allows for uncovering any pertinent clinical conditions requiring coordinated specialty treatment or medication interventions surpassing standalone self-help efforts. Having professional support through breakdown aftershocks can help prevent subsequent incidents and downward spirals into more desperate states of instability.

Cultivating Daily Stability as Prevention

While emotionally exhausting in the moment, mental breakdowns often enlighten us to where our stress-coping limits lie. Heeding those limits subsequently allows intentionally fostering sustainable thought and behavior patterns shielding against cumulative duress later creeping towards those boundaries again. Routinely tending to needs like:

  • Setting healthy boundaries around responsibilities and people’s demands
  • Carving out alone time restoring inner equilibrium
  • Fostering supportive interpersonal relationships
  • Adhering to medical and therapy guidance if relevant
  • Practicing mindfulness, gratitude and self-compassion

Key Takeaways

Mental breakdowns signal critical junctures where we must either double down on self-care practices to regain footing or reach out for more intensive treatment backup when self-help stalls. Prioritizing breakdown prevention through daily wellness habits, coupled with promptly deploying coping strategies when warning signs first emerge, offers optimal pathways to preserve continuity in functioning. While breakdowns may continue punctuating life periodically amidst variable stressors, adjusting care plans to fill personal capability gaps can make such occurrences less destabilizing over time.