Have you ever had a nervous breakdown?
Maybe you’re on the verge of having one right now. Sometimes they can sneak up on you as stress and anxiety accumulate like a snowstorm. You may not realize you are going through one until days or weeks later… and suddenly your mind is breaking down on the side of the road.
Personally, I had one over the holiday season, but it was a full four days before I understood what was happening! And I’m a mental health professional—you would think I had a special radar for such things.
Perhaps I should break down what a nervous breakdown is. Some say it is how we physically and emotionally react to overwhelming life situations. It is a sign of the inability to productively cope with these. But the most succinct definitions cannot reflect the intensity of our emotions when we are going through a breakdown. I imagine any attempt to write them out would have to be powerfully poetic. We may be so overwhelmed and consumed by emotions that we cannot sleep, eat, properly breathe, or clearly think. We could experience a combination of all these symptoms and more.
And there may not be the luxury of taking adequate time off from responsibilities, performing effective self-care, or talking with social supports. Solutions may be hard to create when creativity is clouded by confusion. This kind of emotional crisis can last hours, days, or even weeks…
How can such inner chaos be tamed?
Interestingly, some of our world’s most notable figures have dealt with nervous breakdowns themselves. The vastly influential founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, had one at the age of 38, in 1913—there weren’t nearly as many resources at the time. Robert Schumann the influential German romantic composer suffered from bipolar disorder and had several breakdowns that inspired much of his music. In Shakespeare’s times, melancholy and despair were recognized as harmful and hopeless conditions illy spoken of and poorly understood, yet Shakespeare was exceptional at describing such mental ailments in his work—and he would not have done it if he didn’t observe it in his environment.
Mental health conditions and breakdowns are not new to humanity and may have even greatly contributed to it. But how can we channel what feels like a hurricane? As much as we try to control our emotions and our responses to stress and all the challenges we are given in life—still, we may get terrified and overwhelmed, panicked, angry, and whatever other emotion the storm picked up. Does this mean we are incompetent if there is no product of our suffering? Have we failed to deliver ourselves through the chaos?
Certainly not. You are alive and reading this right now. And that means there is something you can do about it.
Tip 1: Tame the Tempest Inside You
You may feel powerless, overwhelmed, and drowning with emotions that perhaps you ignored or tried to sneak around. These emotions are here now like waves crashing upon you. They say that a smooth sea never makes a skilled sailor and in the same way, we cannot expect that our lives will be pleasant rides even if we try our hardest to live without any problems.
Even if you are an amazing driver who always follows the rules, another driver may crash into you. Trouble is always out there like circling sharks. The circumstances that surround may feel threatening, but inside you is where a whirlpool of emotions is actively pulling you apart. So, you must still the waters inside yourself. Remember, everything is temporary, and this moment in time is no exception. One way or another, there will be a resolution, and on the other side, you will get your land legs and move forward.
While it may feel like you have washed up on a remote desert Island thereafter, it is important to draw upon your experiences for a more experienced future. This is to say, once the waters inside you settle, and the challenges around you have subsided, it is important to examine the highs and lows of your survival. What were the most difficult moments? How did they calm, ebb, and flow? Where were tidal shifts, and what did you do differently? Like rewatching a sports performance, breakdown the highlights, and determining where the technique was lacking and where it was working.
Again, everything in life is transient. Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “you cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.” He pointed out to us that everything in life is temporary, and reality is continually recreating itself. This crisis and the next are also temporary and survival is most important. You may feel suicidal when a nervous breakdown hits you, but again, this turmoil is temporary, and suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem (if you are in need of crisis intervention, you can call or text the new hotline at 988).
Living is not the problem. The problem is what is keeping you from feeling alive. Get through the day, get through the night, at dawn is another opportunity to find still waters. You can’t always wait for rescue but asking for help could be the solution you need. All shall pass, if you are overwhelmed, keep focused on this one goal: survive the storm.
Tip 2: Boost Your Mental Immune System
When you have a fever, your body has raised the alarm that there is an unwelcome intruder (i.e. a virus or bacteria). Your body tries to get rid of this infiltrator by increasing your temperature to fry them out. The same might be said about a mental breakdown. Your mind has been overtaken by unwelcomed stressors, so it reacts accordingly to increase the urgency to fight back. This may be the initial defense mechanism, and the symptoms of this stress can affect your mood and even manifest in your body.
Mental breakdowns can be debilitating. Appetite, sleep, general wellness—there are ramifications to this defensive process. With the understanding of how connected your mind and body are, it is worth considering how the immunity boost you need, maybe in the type and dosage of your thinking. It is also important to consider how there is plenty of research to suggest our mind’s stress has a direct connection to our body’s immune system. So how might you improve your mind’s immunity and resistance to such threats?
Consider developing a better radar and reaction to stress. Maybe you tried to ignore checking your bank account thinking “out of sight, out of mind,” but your brain is too clever for that. Maybe you have been procrastinating deciding or taking action toward a problem. Perhaps your car broke down and has left you with a flurry of worry about how you’ll get over this pothole in life. A mental breakdown is an alarm. It calls you to pay attention and gear up for what your mind perceives as a threat. You see, a fever is rarely the problem. Fever is the natural way for your body to fight back against an intruder. A nervous breakdown is a natural way for your body and mind to let you know that something is seriously wrong—maybe your life or safety is in danger, or something else is making you very uneasy. A fever means there is a virus or bacteria attacking you.
A nervous breakdown may mean there are people, situations, and circumstances that are stressing you and this fever-like reaction may be the first clue to let you reflect on what is happening in your life. Fever can help. It is a natural defense system, even though we seem to fight it with meds. We do the same with mental breakdowns, we fight them with meds when sometimes we should fight the stressors instead of our natural reactions to them! What kind of intruder are you dealing with? What caused the breakdown? In what way is this breakdown a defense? What are you defending yourself against?
Tip 3: Identify Your Tribe
Sometimes it is helpful to be alone when the world seems to be crashing down around you. But there is a difference between “alone time” and being or feeling alone. We are social creatures. Some more than others. In a time of need, allies can be the greatest resources. And isolation and loneliness can be your greatest enemies. It is important to ask:
Who are your trusted allies and friends?
Who can help with emotional support?
Who can help with practical support?
Sometimes you can get stuck in your head thinking how you don’t want to bother others, feel embarrassed, or be vulnerable to those who might wish to help us. There is no shame in asking for help. And right now, you may really need it.
Identify by name, a list of people you know you can contact. Ask yourself what is it about them that makes you trust them. What qualities do they have that you admire or feel reassured by? How many people do you have in your trusted tribe? Do you need to recruit more members? Remember that no one—no matter how it might feel—no one is ever alone, and you are not either. If you don’t have any names that come to mind, seek the names of places and online resources where people can be found.
Despite how difficult the world feels at times, people like to help. It is good to have a “go-to” list of people and places for any time you feel a mental breakdown is striking again.
Tip 4: Troubleshoot Solutions and Ask for Hugs
This sounds simple, but it is quite difficult because sometimes there may be no solutions. At least, at the time. A solution may be waiting for the storm to pass, or the unpleasant situation to end. You may not be able to move out of your dorm room, or change your job, control a relationship outcome, or stop someone from suing you or damaging your name. Counseling or meds may help you find solutions, but it won’t fix the immediate situation.
No matter what, talking through various options with a trusted someone may put your mind at ease. There is an importance to both practical and emotional support. Solutions are often found when we understand our emotions and have the clarity and composure to take action. Talk through your troubles with a trusted advisor, and as you do—ask your tribe for hugs, prayers, positive vibes, or anything else that you may need to feel better. Research shows that hugs boost your immune system, reduce the amount of stress hormone in your body (cortisol), boost your heart health, reduce your fear, and in general make you feel better, and guess what they are free, and no copays or deductibles are needed.
Tip 5: Reframe Your Perspective, Accept, and Move On
Scott Lynch in “The Republic of Thieves” said that “life boils down to standing in line to get shit dropped on your head. Everyone’s got a place in the queue, you can’t get out of it, and just when you start to congratulate yourself on surviving your dose of shit, you discover that line is actually circular.”
Shit happens to all of us, and it is one unifying factor of the human condition. No wonder you might feel like screaming and yelling at times. Mental breakdowns begin to make more sense when we consider the chaos of life.
Maybe it is not all too cynical. Maybe there is some underlying good to be found in the predicaments that keep dropping on our heads. Maybe these are our portions for the day, week, or month—a ration of reality that is meant for our growth. And no, it is not some slop, though it may taste as much—while these challenges might be bitter, they are most nutritious.
So, you might consider accepting your breakdowns as a mental reboot. There is new software you just downloaded that’ll help your brain operate life a little more efficiently. We are not perfect and are constantly growing.
Give grace to yourself for not being as resilient, courageous, strong, wise, or whatever else you may feel deficient, now allow for yourself to be updated by this new challenge. Anyone familiar knows phones and computers often try and update at times most inconvenient, but these changes produced by our challenges are most meaningful to us because we actually live them.
It may feel like life is beating you up. Better than being beaten down! Change your perspective, accept and give grace, then move on. There is surely more shit or slop coming your way, so be ready for it with a better attitude next time!
Alicja Matusiak in collaboration with Joshua Adams