Many illnesses can cause what many people might call a nervous breakdown, so it is difficult to make an all-inclusive list of symptoms. Among the most common are a sudden disinterest in work or family life, alienation from previously close friends and family members, paranoid thoughts, persistent anxiety and the inability to participate in normal activities or maintain normal relationships. An increase in alcohol consumption and an increase in the use of drugs — whether legal or illegal — also can be symptoms. In some cases, a nervous breakdown might be accompanied by suicidal thoughts, simply wanting to die or an obsession with dying.
"Nervous breakdown" is not a clinical term but can apply to many different situations in which someone begins to exhibit symptoms of various mental illnesses or heavy emotional stress. This term dates from a much older diagnosis of people, particularly women, who suddenly became unable to function in their lives. The first symptoms often are or were ignored, prompting what is now known as a psychotic break from reality, or a psychotic episode. This might show up in the form of an attempted suicide or extreme behavior that requires hospitalization.
In addition to the previously mentioned symptoms, certain other behaviors also might come before or indicate a psychotic episode. Among these are sleep disruption or much longer periods of sleep; significant changes in appetite, such as eating too little or too much; thoughts of grandeur or invincibility; and hallucinations. Other symptoms might include exhibiting strong or violent anger and having flashbacks to a traumatic event or events.
Perhaps the greatest predictor of a nervous breakdown is a history of mental instability within a person's family. People who have family members with major depression, bipolar, anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder or schizophrenia are more likely to be at risk for nervous breakdowns. Undiagnosed mental illnesses in a person's ancestors might also manifest as alcoholism or abusive behavior.
People who are undergoing high levels of stress — such as after a messy divorce or after the death of a parent, spouse or child — are more likely to have nervous breakdowns if they are predisposed toward certain mental illnesses. Also, someone who does not have a predisposition toward mental illness can have a nervous breakdown if he or she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can manifest years after a single traumatic event and might be triggered by a situation that seems similar. For someone who has undergone trauma, early counseling can help prevent a nervous breakdown.