More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Nervous breakdown: What does it mean?

Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Daniel Hall-Flavin, M.D., and colleagues answer select questions from readers.

What is a nervous breakdown? What causes people to have them?
- Linda / Minnesota​

The term "nervous breakdown" is used by the public to characterize a wide range of mental illnesses. Nervous breakdown is not a medical term and doesn't indicate a specific mental illness. Generally, the term describes a person who is severely and persistently emotionally distraught and unable to function at his or her normal level.

Often, when people refer to having a nervous breakdown, they're describing severe depression. Signs and symptoms of severe depression include:

  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Difficulty or inability to stop crying
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Dramatic appetite changes
  • Indecision
The causes of mental illness usually aren't clear. But these factors may play a role:

Drug and alcohol use
Coexisting medical conditions, such as thyroid disorders and certain vitamin deficiencies

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Hard to say, Janet, without knowing more about the circumstances. How old is the individual? What if anything has happened out of the ordinary to that person? etc. ... etc.


Nervous Breakdown is a popular term to describe the conditions that the first post in this thread listed.

Another frequently used "non-medical" term to describe the inability of an otherwise successful person to continue functioning at their previous levels is burn out.

Are there similarities or differences between a person reporting they are burned out and cannot work to a person experiencing a nervous breakdown.

Have you know someone experiencing either of these two described conditions and what were the manifestations that you observed in their behaviour and condition?


for me.. burn out could mean...
an otherwise successful person can burn out for a number of reasons.. I think the main one would be, not having the back or support of peers in a similar job, not being able to debrief, talk about the days stresses or highs even, feeling like one has to do eveything himself\herself to make sure it's right. or maybe not having the support of the employer, (left to own devices all the time). (there's more just can't think them). Constantly giving it (the job) all they have to give till they feel they have no more to offer, it can get to a stage where a person can really dread going to work, even hate it so much that they can't decide what they are supposed to be doing there anymore.
eventually quitting, a person may well never work at the same type job again. that to me would be specific job related burn out.

I think i'm on the right track... ?????? or maybe I'm just thinking out loud again.
burnt out to me means worn out due to doing to much got no energy left to do anything people usually use it associated with work i think burnt out is due to stress but I dont see it as the same thing as a nervous breakdown, I think a nervous breakdown is more serious, ive heard people on tv saying theyre burn out and that they need a holiday and they come back revitilised, where as with a breadown recovery takes longer to recover from, im rambling just my thoughts on its:)
i think burnout can lead to a breakdown. what struck me was the anger, no, the rage that surged up inside of me at the time. very frightening and confusing.
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