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5 Tips for Spotting and Stopping a Nervous Breakdown Early

That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger - Friedrich Nietzsche

How many times have you heard the words ‘heading for a nervous breakdown’? Ever wondered what a breakdown actually is: what it looks like, what it feels like?

And how would you recognise the signs and symptoms of breakdown?

Nervous exhaustion

When Lindsey had to take time off work due to ‘nervous exhaustion’, nobody knew what to make of it. She was always such a happy person, laughing and singing in the office. What they didn’t realise was Lindsey’s home life was falling apart. Her father was seriously ill and her mother was not coping at all well.

Lindsey was having to do more and more to help at home, trying to be strong for mum and trying to pretend everything was alright at work. But the strain started to show. Lindsey was getting tired.

If only she had recognised the signs earlier. Rather than pretending nothing was wrong, she could have reached out for help and support. In the end she had to take a complete break. She was on stress overload.

What are the symptoms to look out for?

Larry came to see me with what his doctor had diagnosed as ‘high anxiety and moderate depression.’ He had been prescribed antidepressants and advised to take six weeks off work.

But, at home, Larry was spiraling into a deeper depression. With no reason to get up in the morning, Larry had taken to lying in bed and sleeping again in the afternoon. This meant that, at night time, he was wide awake until two or three in the morning.

‘I just don’t have any energy or enthusiasm for anything’ he complained.’ It’s not like me at all. I can’t cope with everyday life. I think I’m heading for a nervous breakdown.’

Certainly, low mood, anxiety and sleep disturbance can be some of the warning signs. Other symptoms to look out for include:

It’s fair to say that people who experience some or all of these symptoms become fearful about the future. If left unresolved for a long time, loss of confidence and loss of hope compound the problem as they start to withdraw from friends, work, hobbies and interests.

“I don’t have anyone to talk to”

So many people make the mistake of feeling they have to be ok all of the time. They see emotional health issues as signs of weakness. For many it’s new territory. Those who suffer from stress overload are often high achievers. They set the personal bar high and feel guilty or disappointed in themselves if they can’t cope.

Seeing themselves doers, achievers or carers, they are used to others coming to them for help, not the other way round. They put on a brave face, refuse to acknowledge they need help and struggle on until the exhaustion takes complete hold. Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can spot the signs early and start to take action:

Use Emotional and psychological intelligence

Understanding how your mind and body respond to stress is really important if you want to avoid emotional melt downs.

The two hemispheres of your brain cannot function optimally and simultaneously. The emotional hemisphere has the ability to ‘switch off’ rational thought. This ’emotional hijacking’ is a survival mechanism and is there to engage fight or flight when you need it, if you were under threat for instance.

But what you don’t want is for your brain to be in panic mode for any length of time. Recognise when you have moved into an emotional black or white thinking style. Clues are when you find yourself saying ‘my whole life is a mess’ or ‘nothing good has ever happened to me’.

Learn to take a step back from knee jerk reactions. Let your rational brain look for the problems….. and the solutions to any issues you have in your life. The rational brain sees all the shades of grey and all the possible solutions.

Avoid emotional hijacking but using both emotional and psychological intelligence.

Reach out for help

There’s nothing wrong with admitting when you’re feeling stressed or overloaded. Everyone needs to be heard from time to time. But if you are the strong silent type or if you think it is weak to look for support, you are missing a vital understanding of what it is to be human.

The human brain is a social organ and fares best when connected to other human brains. Isolation can bring not just loneliness but distorted thinking.

Find yourself a friend, colleague, counsellor, coach or family member who you can allow yourself to be ‘real’ with. Take off the ‘I can cope’ mask for a while and connect to others for help, support and advice. They will undoubtedly see the situation from a different point of view as they are not so emotionally connected to it.

Look after your body too

Your body needs rest. Some people think they are machines. They make more and more demands on their bodies without considering the consequences.

If you had a car, you would not expect it to run well on the wrong fuel. Yet many people survive on high carb, low nutrition diets and then compound the problem with alcohol, a well-known neurotoxin!

Irrigating your problems with alcohol will only interrupt good quality sleep, lower your mood and rob your body and mind of precious nutrients.

Think of your body (that includes your brain) as a wonderful Porsche which needs to be serviced, maintained and fine-tuned from time to time.

Or think of it as an expensive, high class racing stallion which needs training, feeding and top of the range stabling for peak performance!

Your body is not just a machine…but, if it were, even machines need looking after if they’re going to keep working!

Learn to switch off

Mindfulness has been around a long time and there are millions of people worldwide who will testify to its benefits.

Fortunately, neuroscience is providing more insight into how and why it really is helpful in teaching people to switch off, relax and get the best from their brains.

Try this mindfulness exercise.

Find a place to sit and relax for a few minutes. Hold a small object in your hand, a stne, a cup, a piece of fruit or anything. It really doesn’t matter what it is.

Now focus you attention on the object. Move it around in your hand. Examine the texture, shape, colour. Examine the space around it, how it rests in your hand.

Do not allow your attention to move from this object. You are training your brain to switch off from intrusive thoughts and worries. Allow your breathing to settle.

Let everything else simply fade away. Right here, right now, you are ok.. there is no past and no future, simply this moment.
Do this regularly to increase executive function and self-control.

Put a fence around worry

What’s the point in worrying 24/7 about the same things? Many people have the same old problems rattling around in their heads all day long…and all night too!

Get a notebook and allocate ten minutes a day to worrying. Write down all the problems and then consider the range of solutions.

Make a decision about what you can and can’t do and decide to act where you can. Then close the book and leave it until the next day when you will do the same thing.

That’s enough worrying for anyone, isn’t it!?

Do you know someone who is currently displaying the signs of a nervous breakdown? Let me know in the comments and we can start a discussion…

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.