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written by Amir Khan
It’s another late night at the office – you’re going on 60 hours this week. You’re working on a project you know your boss is going to throw right back into your face. You finally make it home, only to pass out on the couch, wake up and repeat your own hellish version of "Groundhog’s Day." And somewhere between all the meetings, revisions and stress, you snap.
It’s called a nervous breakdown, and though it’s not an officially recognized diagnosis, clinical psychologist Denee Jordan says it’s a perfect descriptor of what the body goes through. “It’s similar to running a car without stopping or taking care of it until it just breaks. Our system shuts down due to the mounting stress,” says Jordan, director of mental health services for the Exceptional Children’s Foundation, an organization that helps children and adults with emotional or developmental issues.
Stress has become such a part of our lives that we often think it’s normal to feel that way, Jordan adds, and it keeps building until we can’t take it anymore. “We’re bombarded with impossible expectations,” she says. “We’re encouraged to be burnt out. The employee that works 17 hours a day is the one who gets the employee of the month award, but then feels ashamed when he can no longer keep up the pace.”
Recognizing the Warning Signs
Nervous breakdowns don’t sneak up on you, unless you let them. There are warning signs and symptoms that you’re pushing your body too far, says Jonathan Jackson, director of the Center for Psychological Services and Field Training at Adelphi University in New York. “It means quite a number of different things to different people, but there are some common experiences that we can identify,” he says.
Some people show symptoms that can seem like the symptoms of a severe mental illness, Jackson says. “They can experience an inability to distinguish what is real from what is imagined, including delusions and hallucinations,” he says. “These symptoms can be so disruptive that the person who is suffering them is unable to perform ordinary activities. It's pretty easy to identify people who are in the midst of this sort of breakdown, because they can't manage their distress, so they can't hide it.”
others, it’s much more subtle. “It could be a depression that takes hold slowly at first, and builds to the point that the person has lost interest in life, feels hopeless and has no energy to perform ordinary activities,” Jackson says. “This presentation is not as easy to identify because it comes on slowly and because people who are suffering this way often hide or deny it.”
When you deny how much stress you’re under and let it build, the symptoms can get worse, Jordan says. “The more stress we encounter, the higher our baseline gets,” she says. “We begin to tolerate more and more stress in our lives, and it just spirals from there.”
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