The Nuance

What Does It Mean to Have a Nervous Breakdown?

It’s not a formal condition. But life events that are both unpredictable and uncontrollable can leave people vulnerable.

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readJul 18, 2019

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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

TThe “nervous breakdown” is getting media attention this month. Recent retrospective accounts of the Apollo 11 moon landing have mentioned astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s “nervous breakdown” in the aftermath of his return to Earth. Last week, a former head of MI6 — the famed British intelligence service — told the BBC that his nation was undergoing a “political nervous breakdown” as it continues to grapple with Brexit.

Most people get the gist of what a nervous breakdown is. But the condition’s borders have always been ill-defined. Even calling a nervous breakdown a “condition” is a bit of an overreach. “The term has been around forever — it was used when I was a kid — but I don’t think it’s ever been a formal diagnosis,” says Michelle Newman, a psychologist and director of the Laboratory for Anxiety and Depression Research at Penn State University.

Newman says the concept of the nervous breakdown exists in a kind of gray area. It does not have accepted diagnostic criteria, and the term isn’t used by psychologists or psychiatrists. (It’s also completely distinct from a “psychotic break,” which refers to the kind of psychotic episodes associated with conditions like schizophrenia. Symptoms can include delusional thoughts, hallucinations, and paranoia.) But non-doctors often use “nervous breakdown” to describe a person who has disconnected in some way from their normal life due to a buildup of stress or anxiety. “I also think it’s used by the media as a catchall to describe a celebrity who’s sort of lost it or become dysfunctional as a result of some [undisclosed] issue, whether it’s anxiety or depression or psychosis,” she says.

While a nervous breakdown is not a diagnosable condition, it does have some defining characteristics, according to experts. The most common one is that a person experiences some lapse in their ability to function as they normally do, which can cause them to bail out of their usual work, social, or family obligations. “Someone is overwhelmed with something — stress or anxiety or depression — to the point that it…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.