The term nervous breakdown has faded from medical terminology but the symptoms of the illness have not changed: a sense of utter fatigue, low energy, little motivation, anxiety, agitation, sleeping too little or too much, a loss of appetite, guilty ruminations and hopelessness.
Some conditions called "nervous breakdowns" are really episodes of major depression or a psychotic disorder of some type. Psychotic disorders are generally more closely related to genetic and biological factors, but depression influenced more by social and environmental factors.
The nervous breakdown has been a staple of American life and literature for more than a century. About a third of Americans say they once felt on the verge of a nervous breakdown or had a mental health problem. Recent studies have found that an estimated 20% of Americans suffer some form of mental illness during their lives.
Perhaps the only symptom of this condition that has remained constant over the years is mental and physical exhaustion, a feeling that an overloaded machine has finally blown. "You don't shave. You don't shower, you don't brush your teeth. You don't care", said the actor Rod Steiger about his experience.
Most psychiatrists sniff at the term nervous breakdown, considering it to be inexact, yet among the general public the term is still widely used and understood to mean snapping under extreme pressure; getting to a point in life where you can�t carry on. In one study, those most likely to say they had anticipated a nervous breakdown were young, white single mothers with low incomes and no involvement with organized religion.
Over the years, psychiatry has gradually subdivided the term into more precise diagnostic categories. Today, nervous breakdowns may be "acute psychotic breaks" or "schizophrenic episodes", as when people suddenly become convinced that aliens have planted listening devices in their teeth, or "manic breaks". They may also be "panic attacks", the hot new malady that is quickly replacing depression as the mental illness of choice. The current diagnosis that most closely resembles the traditional nervous breakdown is "major depressive episode," in which a person may experience a sustained fatigue and loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities.
A person operates as a single unit. What affects the body affects the mind, and what affects the mind affects the body. Physical, genetic, and dietary factors join with past experiences and mental outlook to determine a person's ability to handle new and ongoing stresses, expectations, and disappointments. Resolution usually requires some combination of counseling, supportive relationships, change in circumstance and habit, nutritional support, removal of biochemical imbalances/deficiencies, medication and time. The solution is uniquely different for each person.
Don't ignore the warning signs, treat the cause when possible, and get the best quality help you can. Quality friends, quality health care, quality food and quality time.