In an overcrowded, stress-filled world, few phrases are so casually used as ‘nervous breakdown’. People can often be heard in offices or on public transport saying things like, “God, the traffic nearly gave me a nervous breakdown,” or “when they said the restaurant was full, I though John was going to have a nervous breakdown.” But those who have actually endured this dreadful experience know better than to throw the phrase around so casually. A nervous breakdown is a serious thing, one that wrecks marriages and even ends lives.
What Is a Nervous Breakdown?
Paradoxically, a nervous breakdown, although it causes immense distress, occurs to protect rather than to hurt the victim. In essence, the nervous system has reached breaking point. Stress, anxiety or trauma have pushed the body to the point of no return. The body is trying to tell you that the situation has become intolerable and that things cannot go on as they are. An analogy may help to clarify this. Imagine a saucepan filled to the brim with water. Slowly, you bring it to the boil. But you keep the lid firmly in place and do not switch off the heat. The steam has no escape. The psychological and even physical shutdown that occurs during a nervous breakdown is an attempt to solve this crisis before the saucepan explodes.
Many things can cause a nervous breakdown, from divorce and bereavement to the drip, drip effect of work-related stress or chronic money worries. Different things affect people in different ways. It isn’t the events, but how people react to these events that matters. War veterans and those who have survived collective catastrophes, like train crashes or terrorist attacks, offer a good example. The victims all endured similar traumas and are all haunted by similar memories, yet they do not all go on to suffer post-traumatic stress or nervous breakdowns. This has more to do with sensitivity than lack of courage. And of course everyone has different personal circumstances. After all, a catastrophe or trauma can occur at any time. One victim may be young, strong, and surrounded by a supportive, loving family, while the next is struggling with a failing marriage or physical illness.
Those who are most vulnerable to a nervous breakdown tend to believe they can somehow control the world. Many cannot accept that life is largely out of their hands. Others find it impossible to let things go. In other words, the way people think shapes the way they react.
As with so many things, prevention is better than cure. Most nervous breakdowns occur after prolonged spells of anxiety and stress. The stress builds and builds and eventually there is an explosion. Everything possible should be done to reduce this stress (occasionally to remove the lid from the boiling pan, in other words).
In a sense, the nervous system has been exhausted, or, to put it another way, overstimulated. You need to minimize such stimulation. Begin with your diet. Caffeine, sugar, candy, nicotine, fizzy drinks, and junk food all need to go. It would also be sensible to cut drugs from your life, including alcohol. Instead, eat a diet packed with fresh fruits and vegetables. If possible, make these organic and eat them raw. You also need good-quality protein, ideally fresh, oily fish (mackerel, sardines, tuna etc. all contain fats that help calm the body) and poultry (Turkey is especially good as it contains tryptophan).
Once you have changed your diet, look at your day to day life. Do you get enough sleep? Is there anything you can do to minimize stress? Can you change your job? Can you end a toxic relationship? If such major changes are impossible, you can at least make smaller ones. Spend less time in front of flickering screens. And try to reduce the amount of news you consume. Never forget that news outlets are competing for your business – and bad, scary news sells. Human beings have evolved to seek out danger. Editors and journalists know that you are more likely to buy a newspaper with a frightening headline than one with a neutral or dull headline. It would also be wise to consider who you spend most time with. List the people in your life and avoid the cynical, pessimistic, miserable ones. It would also be sensible to spend less time with excitable, manic friends. Do you know someone who is calm, mellow, easy going and optimistic? You need to surround yourself with such people.
If possible, get out of the town or city and spend time in the countryside. You need space, light, and silence. Abandon yourself to nature and it will heal you. Go for long walks in the woods, as far from cars, noise and people as you can get. Empty your mind of thought and focus on where you are: watch the trees swaying in the wind, pay attention to the colour of the sky, leaves and grass, listen to the rush and gurgle of the stream and the song of the birds. Be fully present.
It should be stressed once more that a nervous breakdown is a serious thing. Those who endure it often experience terrible depression, insomnia, and even psychosis. And of course, their family and friends also suffer. Watching someone you love in emotional pain is no fun. People should therefore pause before dismissing such individuals as ‘weak’ or ‘burnt out’ and just be grateful it isn’t them.