Signs & symptoms of a nervous breakdown
A nervous breakdown rarely happens overnight; it takes a long time to spiral all the way down to rock bottom. And that’s the good news: there’s plenty of time to spot the warning signs and sort yourself out before you reach breaking point.
Unfortunately many of us somehow manage to ignore – or perhaps get used to – the warning signs and it’s only when it’s too late that we’re able to join the dots and understand how we were able to unravel so disastrously.
That’s why I’m writing this post: all of the signs and symptoms that I include are from my own experience only and all, without exception, grew worse over time because I didn’t acknowledge how serious they were when they began to impact my life.
I hope my experience will be of help to you or to someone you know.
Watch my video about the signs and symptoms I suffered before, during and after my breakdown:
Nervous breakdown checklist – what I felt before my mental breakdown:
Everything that wouldn’t usually get on my nerves would make my nerves raw, from a cat purring to a web page not loading quickly enough. It wouldn’t take much for me to throw my toys out of the pram over something petty and I’d find myself blaming tiredness, stress or being due on. I even thought I was turning into a grumpy, middle-aged woman at one point and assumed it was just part of life. Even so, it troubled me greatly, as I’ve always been relatively tolerant and I didn’t like what I was turning in to.
I’ve been a ridiculously sensitive person my entire life but I was off the scale in terms of how self-conscious I became, especially when it came to what others might think about my weight. I grew paranoid and anxious if I thought someone’s gaze was lingering on my stomach or hip area and I’d try not to turn side-on to a person so they’d be less likely to focus on my size. I hated going to shopping centres or busy places because I felt so self-conscious; even walking past a stranger sitting on a bench would be agonising for me.
I felt guilty about being short with people, particularly close family, but I was too stressed to curb my behaviour. More to the point I couldn’t control my behaviour and felt guilty about spoiling the atmosphere at social events, being well aware that I was making other people feel uncomfortable if they said anything that would make me even the slightest bit defensive. If someone pulled me up on my sensitivity it would make me feel guiltier but instead of apologising I’d somehow convince myself that I was in the right and that everyone was against me.
I felt easily angered by strangers’ comments on the internet, people getting in my way in shops, conversations on the radio, comments by family members etc. and the anger would bubble away inside me as I stewed for hours, knowing I was wasting my time on something unimportant (which made me even more annoyed). I’d feel such overwhelming resentment and rage at people’s stupidity, especially on social media, that I willingly backed away from society even more than usual. I’d catch sight of myself looking angry in the mirror and didn’t recognise myself at times.
Even though I enjoy what I do for a living, I was finding it increasingly difficult to motivate myself even to check emails or do the necessary admin to keep the business running smoothly. I couldn’t find the mental energy required to do even the most basic of tasks and the more I let my business slide, the less I could get motivated about saving it. Motivation takes energy and I was simply running out of it. This applied to diet, exercise, hobbies – everything in my life – until I felt like I was just existing rather than living a life I loved.
I became highly stressed, particularly by anything new being presented to me. I’d suffered chronic and severe stress for decades but it grew far worse in the years leading up to my breakdown. If new information came my way it meant that I had to process it. I’d feel my brain getting foggy, my eyes glazing over and my stress levels rising – this was my brain’s way of stopping anything new being taken in because it couldn’t cope with it. This came across as me not caring, which stressed me even more because I had no control over how I was reacting.
If I had to do something, for example go to a meeting or contact a customer, I would become severely stressed and would do everything I could to get out of it and pass responsibility to Dave (my husband and business partner); if there was something I wanted to do I found the capacity and interest to get it done. This went on for years before I hit rock bottom and continued well after I had my breakdown. It’s taken the best part of a year to be able to deal with responsibility to any helpful degree again.
Over a few years my physical and mental energy dwindled until I was unable to do even the simplest of chores; it would take days for me to get the mental energy needed to open the post, put the washing on or tidy up, for example. It was that extreme. I thought I was suffering from severe fatigue because I was fat and had had a few hard knocks in life, but it was way more than just feeling a bit tired and lazy. Some days I wasn’t able to do much more than get out of bed and head to the sofa and often I didn’t have the energy even to get dressed.
I’d put off brushing my teeth until later in the day because I would be so exhausted after taking a shower. Some days I wouldn’t get round to doing it at all. Everyday tasks were getting way too much for me to handle and in the weeks leading up to my breakdown I didn’t have enough energy to shave both legs while taking a shower; I’d have to do one leg one day and the other leg the next day. I couldn’t take a bath because it was too exhausting to wallow in the heat and I’d have to rush a shower because I didn’t have the energy to stand for long.
Heading towards a breakdown was like being on a drug that numbed me at times, though not all the time. It got much worse in the fortnight before my breakdown but after my breakdown it was like a release and all my emotions came back. Before that, though, I didn’t have the capacity for emotion, and I found myself withdrawing from people and from showing feelings. If Dave was upset about something or wanted to talk about something business related, I didn’t really care. I worried that I was becoming sociopathic and that I wasn’t in love anymore.
I felt picked at by everybody and developed a victim mentality, probably because it meant I had an excuse to remove myself from social situations. I expected people to see the worst in me and when I was with family I’d wait for them to say something that could be interpreted as them being disappointed in me so that I had an excuse to purposefully withdraw from them. I was paranoid about what people thought of me, especially family. It got in the way of relationships but I didn’t have the capacity to care about the effect I was having on them.
I couldn’t take in what people were saying to me. At times it was like being in a bubble and it grew particularly worse over the last couple of weeks before my breakdown. During that time I wasn’t able to hold much of a conversation at all and certainly couldn’t take in any new information. Some days I’d be fine but if I was tired or stressed my head would grow foggy and there was nothing I could do to clear it. It left me confused at times, affected my speech, my thoughts, my energy levels and was the most shocking symptom I faced.
I felt like my world was getting smaller and I didn’t mind; I didn’t want anything to do with the outside world at all, especially people. I was losing interest in things that interested me before. I didn’t care to hear about what was going on in other people’s lives because I didn’t have the will to take it in or to help them. I would resent having to reply to messages because I didn’t have the power to think beyond my own predicament. I preferred to remain withdrawn, even though when I did see people I felt better for a while.
I was obsessed with my expedition to Iceland. I thought it was normal for me to be single-minded because it was such a big thing to do but in fact I was trying to escape from normality and withdrawing from responsibility. It was easy for my brain to cope with because it wasn’t something mundane and it was something I was passionate about but I would feel guilty because it would take my attention from things I was supposed to be focusing on and getting done. Life came down to me and my expedition for around a year before my breakdown.
I didn’t want to answer the phone or door because I didn’t feel confident enough to deal with people. I had developed a fear of being told off, after a couple of nasty customers had laid in to me on the phone years before. I knew it was completely irrational but at the same time it felt very real to me at the time. I didn’t feel confident enough at times to enter into a quick conversation with the postman or a cashier in a shop and resented going through mundane conversation, deeming it a pointless waste of energy. I had no confidence in myself, which was really the point.
I’m a very peaceful and tolerant person but in the years leading up to my breakdown I could be surprisingly aggressive, irritable and rude. I would take things far too personally, think everyone was getting at me, be offended easily and stew on things that usually would not matter, for example a passing comment from a stranger. I became quite opinionated and I think now that it was a way of me removing myself from any association with other people, because I found fault with everyone and everything to a ridiculous degree. That’s not like me at all.
I had no ability to concentrate on one task at a time and was constantly flitting from one thing to another, never really getting anything done. This was particularly evident when I watched videos – I would rarely finish watching a whole video even if it was only two minutes long; I’d click on another video and never finish that one either. My mind couldn’t stop for long enough to take in information and it was easier for me to gloss over everything by quickly moving on to the next thing.
I was feeling very alone and unable to convey what I was feeling because I didn’t understand what was happening to me and couldn’t pinpoint anything in particular that was the problem. I didn’t even care that I had a problem at times. I didn’t want to talk about what I was going through because I felt like a burden to others and didn’t have the energy to bother going into detail. Yet I felt abandoned by my friends and misunderstood by my family, even though they were, in reality, acting no different towards me than usual. I wanted to be alone yet felt agonisingly lonely, which was an odd predicament to be in.
Other symptoms I experienced before my nervous breakdown:
- Low sex drive
- Tense muscles
- Clenched jaw, especially after eating
- Fight or flight feeling
- Unable to deal with loud or complicated noises
- Lightheadedness, especially in public
- Panic attacks
- Shaky hands (most likely dehydration)
- Dry skin
- Bad dreams