Stressed woman, wondering "What is a mental breakdown?"

What’s a Mental Breakdown? Stress in Our Modern World

“I’m on the brink of a mental breakdown.” Do mental or nervous breakdowns really exist? More importantly, if these breakdowns happen, how do you recover? And, how did these terms become so commonplace in our vernacular?

Finally, if breakdowns are real, how do you know when you reach the breaking point? Are there clues to your personal limitations when it comes to stress? Even the most sophisticated among us have been guilty of using the terms “mental breakdown” or “nervous breakdown” in a casual, flippant way. “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown because of this project,” or “The line at the DMV gave me a mental breakdown.” In reality, no doctor will ever diagnose you with a mental or nervous breakdown. These aren’t current medical diagnoses. It is possible, however, to become so overly stressed by life that you find it impossible to function in your daily life.

Interestingly, these terms exist because medical doctors of long ago were able to link environmental stressors to biological reactions in the body accurately. While the specific diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder didn’t make its way to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) until 1980, doctors could logically see a connection between anxiety and life situations far in the past.

The Ranch Pennsylvania is here to help you and your loved ones effectively manage life’s stressors. If things get to be too much, we are here to support and educate. Life is challenging. Things have been especially challenging these past few years. You aren’t alone, even if it feels like it. Let’s sort between the facts and the fiction together as we examine this idea of a breakdown.

The History of the Mental Breakdown

Hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the introduction of electricity and telephones seemed to create an overwhelming daily pace of activity.

In 1881, Dr. George Miller Beard wrote about a nervous disease plaguing “modern” society in the publication American Nervousness. According to a March 2021 article titled “Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown” by Jerry Useem and published in The Atlantic, Beard introduced the idea of a nervous breakdown.

Useem writes how Beard felt the modern improvements of the late 1800s and early 1900s created stressors that preyed on the nervous system. Life moved more quickly with these state-of-the-art inventions, and the world was too much for many people.

Even the famous were susceptible, like John D. Rockefeller Jr., who pulled himself free of the strain by recovering in the south of France in 1904.

Around this same time, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov researched how environmental stressors could influence the body’s nervous system. Dogs would respond by salivating when conditioned to expect food at the ring of a bell. Pavlov’s transmarginal inhibition experiments also showed animals and people have a pain and stress threshold. When the threshold is reached in response to overwhelming stress or pain, the nervous system begins to shut down.

Read more about Pavlov’s life and research in the physiologist’s biography published on

Changing the Language

After the stock market crash of 1929, the idea of a nervous breakdown took on new momentum. Fortune Magazine referred to the phenomenon in 1935 when unemployment was at 20%.

Throughout the 20th century, the concept that human beings have an emotional threshold with a set weight capacity continued to build. Anyone overcome by life’s pressures was vulnerable to their own “19th Nervous Breakdown,” a song released by the Rolling Stones in 1966.

Celebrities even made breakdowns somewhat posh by using the terms as a vague explanation when fame became too much, and a retreat from the public eye was necessary.

At some point, however, medical progress with mental health replaced this vague ailment. In recent years, celebrities have bravely offered up specific disorders like bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression when faced with mental illness.

Again, it’s important to remember a nervous or mental breakdown is not a diagnosis any doctor will ever add to your medical records. These terms are colloquial expressions formed over time as a broad description for any number of psychological or psychiatric conditions.

The idea, however, of life being too much and the reality of human beings sometimes feeling crushed under the pressure of a modern world isn’t farfetched.

What’s Your Breaking Point?

Everyone has a limit. Think about it. And, everyone’s limit is different.

A dump truck has a designated weight it cannot surpass, or it will falter. Human beings have limits too. If the driver ignores the truck’s weight limit, the truck may break or could even hurt someone else on the road. In this way, people aren’t so different from trucks. Different trucks have different limits, so it goes with different people being more or less sensitive to stressors.

It turns out, Pavlov’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1904 wasn’t for nothing. His transmarginal inhibition theories and experiments contain value more than 125 years later.

Let’s say you burn yourself as you grab a tea kettle on the stove. This quick, non-life-threatening burn elicits a cry of pain followed by a short period of recovery. However, if your body suffers a more serious injury, like a broken bone, your nervous system may shield you from the pain, and you may not notice the bone is broken.

Emotional stressors can create a similar response. A small amount of stress may motivate you to work a little faster, while overwhelming stress may cause your system to freeze like a deer in the headlights.

The trick here is knowing what your own weight limit is. Human beings are made up of genetic predispositions and environmental conditioning, which creates a unique response to life’s stresses. One person may thrive in an environment where there’s a constant state of adrenalin, while another may need quiet and calm to perform at her best.

Putting the Pieces Together for a Healthier Life

When we put all this information together, we come up with a simple formula for life. Each one of us has a different recipe for success and overwhelm. Outside stimuli impact our bodies and make it either easier or harder to manage life.

Self-awareness around your unique weight limitations makes all the difference.

The first question to ask yourself is a simple one. Are you able to function daily without too much strain or negative consequences to yourself or others?

Do you wake up feeling refreshed and have the motivation and energy needed to show up for your job, your family, and yourself? Even if you are able to show up for all three, how much effort does it require on your part? Does it feel like wading through molasses when it comes to getting your day-to-day stuff done?

For more information about recent research around chronic stress, read “The Manifestations and Triggers of Mental Breakdown and its Effective Treatment by Increasing Stress Resilience with Psychosocial Strategies, Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes, and Orthomolecular Interventions” by Jonathan Prousky published in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine.

Another good stress measure is your relationship with others. If you find yourself able to get through each day, but you come home and unload all your frustrations on loved ones, then something isn’t working. And, if getting through each day means using a substance or compulsive behavior to cope, pay attention to the red flag.

Just like the dump truck will eventually fail under the pressure of too much weight, so will a human being.

If the above symptoms are your version of normal, don’t expect things to resolve themselves. Ignoring telltale signs like the ones above will lead to a health crisis, family crisis, mental crisis, and more. There’s a reason heart disease falls consistently at the top when it comes to leading causes of death. The recipe for a heart attack matches the recipe for stress overload, including poor diet, lack of exercise, overwork, substance abuse like cigarettes and alcohol, etc.

Put yourself first by taking a simple inventory and considering what overload symptoms are present in your life.

Specific symptoms that life is pressing too hard on you include:

  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Emotional numbness
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Lack of interest in activities
  • Low motivation
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability and short-tempered with loved ones
  • Isolation
  • Physical illness
  • Digestive issues
  • Trouble concentrating

Read more about signs and symptoms of stress overload in the article titled “What Is a Nervous Breakdown?” by Allison Abrams published in July 2020 at

If It’s Not a Mental Breakdown, What Is It? 

You’ve taken an inventory of your stress and realized some things in your life aren’t working. What now?

Here’s the hard part. Ask for help.

Let’s consider the worst-case scenario first. Your life is unsustainable as it is. Getting out of bed requires a huge effort on your part, and you feel heavy and tired getting through each day. Substances like caffeine, nicotine, and other mood-altering chemicals give you the boost needed to survive.

Something needs to give.

If you feel suicidal, don’t minimize it; let someone know. Suicide Prevention has a 24/7 hotline available; call and talk to someone. Inpatient residential mental health treatment centers, like The Ranch Pennsylvania, offer nurturing, evidence-based support to overcome and thrive.

Here’s where your head may throw some thought obstacles in your path:

  • I can’t afford it.
  • Too many people count on me.
  • There’s no way I can drop out of life for 30 days or more or even fit an extra hour into my week.
  • It’s no big deal.

If you hear these messages anytime you consider getting support from a mental health professional or facility, start by reframing the messages. Here are some examples:

  • Can I afford not to get help?
  • Do I want things to stay the same?
  • How can people count on me when I’m not able to function?
  • Is there the possibility life could be easier and less of a strain?
  • Are there financial supports I’m not aware of? Could I ask by calling a treatment center or mental health professional?
  • These are ingrained, self-destructive habits; what if I need something in-depth to reprogram my thinking?

Maybe your life hasn’t reached a crisis point, but there are still some areas you’d like to adjust to. Don’t discount the value of a supportive therapist, a 12-step group, a monthly meetup with like-minded friends, a short vacation to regroup, or anything else calling happily to your inner self.

Try this creative method to identify where, specifically, to make adjustments. Draw a circle and divide it into six sections. Label each piece of the pie with the following: Spiritual, Work, Family, Fun, Exercise, Adventure. Place a dot in each pie piece, either close to the center or nearer the circle’s edge. The closer the dot is to the circle’s edge, the more satisfied and more time you spend on this particular area of your life.

The Ranch Pennsylvania Can Help

After placing the dots in each pie piece, connect them. In this way, you can visually identify areas where your life is more or less content. If, for instance, work has a dot closer to the circle’s edge, but fun is closer to the center, this indicates it’s time to add more fun to your life.

Take action of some sort, build supportive people into your life, and watch life become joyful again.

For more information about The Ranch Pennsylvania and the programs available to manage stress overload and any mental disorders impacting your life or the life of a loved one, call 717.969.9126.

By Heather Berry

Contributing Writer with Promises Behavioral Health

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