The world is a busy place, and there’s a lot going on around the clock. With so many pressures and responsibilities every day, people can snap under the pressure of dealing with it all. When it all becomes too much, some may call what they experience a mental breakdown, while others may have experienced a psychotic break. Is there a difference between the two? The short answer is yes, but they share some things in common. 

Whichever one has experienced, both offer an opportunity to conduct an assessment of a person’s mental health. The findings of that assessment could inform them of which way to go when it comes to medical and mental health treatment that could lead to an effort to improve one’s life.

But what does a mental breakdown look like? How can you tell the difference between mental breakdown symptoms and symptoms of a psychotic break?

Mental Breakdowns: What Are They?

A mental breakdown, also known as a nervous breakdown, is used to describe someone’s mental and emotional state after they are unable to function normally. This usually takes place after distressing factors have become too much for the person to manage. Per Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D., who wrote on the topic for Mayo Clinic, the term nervous breakdown is “commonly understood to occur when life’s demands become physically and emotionally overwhelming.” 

Life’s demands can include extreme changes, such as:

  • Sudden loss of a job
  • The death of a family member or friend
  • Losing a home due to eviction or foreclosure
  • Separation or divorce
  • Financial struggles
  • Abusive situations
  • Constant stressful situations
  • Having a chronic illness
  • Caregiving for a person with a chronic illness 

A mental breakdown can also result from a person feeling like they have little to no support as they cope with life’s demands. They may contribute to their stress by their inability to ask or accept help or delegate tasks to make life manageable. The reasons for a mental breakdown can happen at any time and for any reason.

The term “mental breakdown” is not a medical one, and it is no longer used in the medical community when referring to various mental disorders. It also does not refer to a specific mental health disorder, Hall-Flavin writes. However, someone could use the term when they are talking about someone exhibiting symptoms of depression or anxiety.

What Does a Mental Breakdown Look Like?

A mental breakdown can look different depending on who is having it. A range of behaviors can occur, including a person having an angry or emotional outburst or sudden changes in mood. There are no defined symptoms aside from not being able to function as normal, per Medical News Today. The definition of what’s normal changes depending on where a person lives, what culture they live in, and how they generally experience stress, the medical site says. However, it lists 21 features it says are common in having a nervous breakdown. A few of them are:

  • Feeling anxious, depressed, sad, or irritable
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Feeling emotionally and physically tired
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Moving or speaking more slowly than usual
  • Showing a lack of interest or motivation 
  • Feeling unable to complete tasks or keep appointments
  • Forgetting to eat or drink
  • Having appetite changes or weight changes
  • Failing to attend to one’s personal hygiene
  • Panic attacks
  • Having thoughts of harm, including dying by suicide

If a person experiences any of these, they may start to miss days at work or school or fail to show up for social engagements and miss appointments, Hall-Flavin writes. 

A blog published on the website Udemy also offers 10 signs of a mental breakdown that one should be aware of. In addition to some of the symptoms mentioned above, a person on the verge of having a mental breakdown may notice that their mind wanders to the point where they cannot focus on their tasks. They also may notice they regularly entertain fantasies of being violent toward someone or doing violent things, a sure sign that getting help should be a priority.

A person in the early stages of a mental breakdown may notice they are more likely to feel negative among the people in their social circle. They may speak negatively about things that are bothering them or criticize others. They also may regularly refuse invitations to hang out with others. Losing important documents or finding it suddenly challenging to keep staying organized can also indicate that a nervous breakdown is on the way. 

While a mental breakdown can look different according to the person going through, all of these signs are a wake-up call that someone needs help. In severe cases, a stay in a hospital may be in order to ensure a person does not harm themselves or others. Mental breakdowns can last for a few hours to a few weeks. The severity of the situation depends on the person who is going through this challenging time. 

Seeking help from a medical or mental health professional is the next step. Talking to someone about a mental breakdown can help uncover a serious mental health disorder that needs closer examination.

If you or someone you know is considering an evaluation after a mental breakdown, you need to have the right information to make the best decision for your health. The mental health care provider you meet with you should use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V) when reviewing your symptoms. This will ensure you are given the proper diagnosis and treatment for your condition. It also rules out that something else could be causing your condition.

Treatment and Prevention for a Mental Breakdown

Treating a mental breakdown starts with reducing one’s stress levels. A person can receive counseling or therapy to address their problems. If medication is needed along with psychotherapy, they can talk to a medical or mental health professional about antidepressants, antianxiety, or antianxiety medications. 

Medication, while helpful, should be handled with care. If you notice a change in your physical or mental state after you have taken prescription medication, you should let your doctor know as soon as possible. They may reduce your dosage or prescribe you another medication altogether. If you are using other medications or nonmedical drugs, or alcohol, it is important to let your doctor know that as well.

Getting quality sleep every night and taking breaks can help with managing stress. Limiting or cutting out caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol can be part of the plan to keep stress levels low.

Low-impact exercises, such as tai chi and yoga, promote mindfulness and encourage people to focus on their breath and the benefits of stretching. Brisk walking and stretching can help keep stress levels low as well. Any exercise that gets the body moving can help a person reduce their anxiety or boost their mood. This should be done at least three times a week for 30 minutes, if not every day. 

Relaxation exercises and holistic approaches, such as aromatherapy and acupuncture, could also be used to relieve stress. However, mental breakdowns can be the red flag that makes someone take a closer look at their mental health. This break in one’s mental health could be an opportunity to see if a mental disorder played a role in or caused their breakdown. If someone is feeling anxious a lot and can’t seem to calm their emotions or their thoughts, an anxiety disorder could be the reason. 

Anxiety affects millions of people, and in many cases, it must be actively managed. As the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes, “For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time.” If not treated for anxiety, a person could experience a mental breakdown again.

A person with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can experience:

  • Restlessness, feelings of being wound up or on edge
  • Problems with concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Excessive worrying
  • Insomnia or other sleep problems

A person could also have other anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, or a phobia of some kind. All of these can raise someone’s stress levels that could cause them to experience a mental breakdown.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), anxiety is how we respond to stress. However, if our stress response is imbalanced, we remain on high alert, which can be disruptive to daily life. Anxiety disorders affect nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives. However, it is treatable with various methods.

Depression Could Be at the Root of a Mental Breakdown, Too

Depression, a serious medical condition that can affect one’s well-being for long periods, can bring on a mental breakdown. Depression can range from mild to severe and affect various parts of someone’s life, including how much sleep they get, whether they eat or not, and how they relate to others. Depression affects more than 300 million people globally and affects more than 16 million adults in the U.S., according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Treating depression can involve psychotherapy and medications. Antidepressants are commonly prescribed for this condition. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are the two types of antidepressants that are prescribed of the five available. Each has its benefits and side effects. Any medication and therapy a person is given should be tailored to their physical and mental health history as well as their personal situation.

A mental breakdown caused by depression may also lead to a diagnosis of other mental health disorders, such as bipolar disorder. Depression is a common symptom of that disorder.

Psychotic Breaks: What Are They?

mental breakdown vs psychotic break

“Psychotic break” is a term used to describe the deterioration of someone’s mental and emotional state when they have lost touch with reality. A person having a mental breakdown may not have necessarily lost touch with reality. However, people who have had a “psychotic break” have lost contact with the actual outside world, and this is a major difference between them.

As the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains, the term “break” can imply that a breakdown happened abruptly, but that’s not the case in most situations. Instead, according to NAMI, a break is an episode of psychosis, which can include delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, disorganized speech or behavior, and other changes in one’s mental or emotional state. Still, the early signs of a psychotic break are vague and hardly noticeable, according to Yale School of Medicine.

NAMI writes that the signs of a psychotic break can occur along a continuum of time, not in “breaks” or “snaps.” What usually happens is that psychosis is not realized until the symptoms are hard to ignore and the person is now in a crisis. During the acute stage of a psychotic break, a person can be distressed by what is happening to them, Yale School of Medicine explains. They also can act out of character in such a way that alarms their family or people who know them. A psychotic break can also require a person to stay in a hospital for their safety as well as the safety of others. 

What Does a Psychotic Break Look Like?

Just like mental breakdowns, psychotic breaks will vary across persons, so it won’t look the same for everyone. People who are on the path of having a psychotic break may go into increased social isolation, withdrawing from their family, friends, and others in their circle early before their psychotic break occurs. But they also may have other signs that occur early and before their crisis unfolds. NAMI lists those signs as:

  • Sleep difficulties (insomnia)
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Trouble understanding what one reads
  • Trouble understanding what is being said
  • Seeing shadows or flashes of light
  • Hearing ringing or voices that others cannot hear
  • Smelling or tasting things that others can’t smell or taste
  • Experiencing sensations that others can’t experience
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts or ideations

NAMI writes that early warning signs of psychosis can include poor school or job performance as well as becoming uneasy or suspicious around others. A person can suddenly have trouble maintaining their hygiene or start to detach from their feelings, or have strong feelings that could be inappropriate in some situations. They also may not exhibit sound judgment or make good decisions.

What Causes Psychosis?

Psychosis is associated with a variety of mental health issues, but it may also be caused temporarily by other substances and circumstances. Many people experience brief moments of hallucinations or delusions when they reach a point of very high stress, though symptoms usually go away with rest. Psychosis that’s associated with diseases like schizophrenia may be longer-lasting or more severe. 

Psychosis can be brief, or it can last for some time. Per PsychCentral, there is no single thing that causes psychosis. However, various things can cause it, including:

  • Substance use (alcohol, drugs)
  • Physical illness
  • Epilepsy
  • Stroke
  • Chemical imbalances in the brain
  • Intense stress
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Genetics

Psychology Today writes that psychosis is only a symptom of a disorder, and that is not a classifiable disorder by itself. Psychosis can also consist of a set of symptoms caused by a mental health disorder. A psychotic break could lead to a diagnosis of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or bipolar disorder. However, it is important to note that psychosis does not always indicate that a person has a mental health disorder. A person can also experience a state of psychosis if they have drunk too much, not gotten enough sleep, or use alcohol or drugs.

Treatment and Prevention After a Psychotic Break

Psychology Today advises a person to get prompt treatment after symptoms of psychosis appear. Treatment is believed to be more effective soon after experiencing a psychotic break. If it is found that a mental health disorder is at the root of a person’s psychosis, treatment could include psychotherapy and antipsychotic medications to make psychosis easier to manage. 

Medication, which can be taken in pill, liquid, or monthly injections, can have side effects that should be reviewed before prescribing it to an individual. Side effects can include tiredness, weight gain, and uncontrollable shaking, among others.

Yale School of Medicine advises that getting help early for an episode of psychosis may mean a person will not experience it again. “Initially, some of the symptoms that are apparent in the acute phase may linger in the recovery phase but with appropriate treatment most people successfully recover and return to their normal, everyday lives,” it writes.

Can Substance Use Cause a Mental Breakdown?

Drug and alcohol problems frequently occur alongside mental health disorders for several reasons. Addiction and mental health problems may have similar risk factors, including genetics. It could be that genetic factors in the brain predispose a person to mental and behavioral problems. However, while genetics are significantly associated with substance use and mental health problems, the exact genes that contribute to these issues aren’t fully understood. 

Self-medication is another potential cause of the link between mental health and substance use problems. Self-medication is using drugs or alcohol to treat or mask uncomfortable mental health symptoms, without consulting a doctor or professional. For instance, if you have anxiety, you may drink alcohol to mask anxiety symptoms. Many common recreational substances can temporarily mask mental health symptoms, but they can also worsen your mental health. 

If you’re experiencing stress and on the verge of a mental breakdown, turning to psychoactive substances can offer temporary relief. But misusing drugs can increase your risk of developing substance use disorders that can take over your life. Addiction significantly adds to stress and may hasten your mental health deterioration. 

It’s unclear if drugs or alcohol can cause mental health problems, but they can certainly trigger mental health issues in people who have had them in the past or may be predisposed to them. 

Can Certain Drugs Cause a Psychotic Break?

Certain drugs can cause or trigger psychotic symptoms. Stimulants are the most common class of prescription or recreational drugs to cause psychotic symptoms. In fact, high doses of drugs like cocaine or amphetamines can cause what is called stimulant-induced psychosis. Stimulant-induced psychosis causes hallucinations, delusions, and other psychotic symptoms that are usually temporary. Since stimulant psychosis is caused by a high dose of a stimulant, symptoms usually begin to wear off with the drug. 

Hallucinogens and psychedelics that alter your state of consciousness may also come with psychosis. However, they can cause the emergence of latent or previously controlled schizophrenia, or other psychotic disorders. Even marijuana that is high in THC can be potentially risky for someone with a history of psychosis, schizophrenia, or schizoaffective disorder. Other drugs that are risky for people with psychotic disorders include mescaline, psilocybin, and DMT.

Alcohol isn’t associated with psychosis while you’re drinking heavily. Rather, alcohol may cause psychosis when you stop drinking. Alcohol and other depressants slow down your central nervous system. As your body gets used to alcohol, you’ll slowly become dependent. If you quit cold turkey, the depressing effects on your nervous system will be removed and your brain chemistry will become unbalanced. With the depressing effects removed, your brain will become overstimulated, which can cause restlessness, insomnia, shaky hands, and other uncomfortable symptoms. In severe cases, you can experience delirium tremens, a set of symptoms that includes extreme confusion and hallucinations. 

If a Psychotic Break Occurs Due to Substance Abuse

Not all psychotic breaks are related to mental health problems. As mentioned earlier, psychosis can be brought on by the use of addictive substances. It can happen while someone is actively using drugs and alcohol, or it can happen after a person is done using substances, which is the drug withdrawal period.

Substances that can cause symptoms of psychosis include cocaine (crack), alcohol, marijuana, LSD, amphetamines, and some prescription medications. Per WebMD, there is research that suggests that drugs may not cause psychosis. Instead, substance use may reveal psychiatric conditions that were already present.

If your mental health starts to suffer because of a drug or alcohol use disorder, you may need to treat both your mental health issue and addiction at the same time.

Getting Help for a Substance Use Disorder, Mental Illness

People with mental health disorders are likely to self-medicate to cope with them. In 2019, 3.8% of U.S. adults had a substance use disorder and mental illness, NAMI reports. Someone with an undiagnosed condition can use drugs and alcohol to deal with stress, depression, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks that occur due to past trauma, and much more. Mental breakdowns and psychotic breaks can both serve as opportunities for people who abuse drugs and alcohol and have a mental health disorder to get the help they need.

Specialized treatment for co-occurring disorders will address a person’s substance use and mental illness at the same time. Treating both conditions concurrently helps ensure that a person can effectively learn how to deal with both. Treating one condition without treating the other will ultimately cause them both to worsen.

Treating both disorders requires behavioral therapies and medications. Depending on how severe a person’s substance abuse is, their treatment may include medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to help them manage their drug withdrawal and avoid relapse while they stay in therapy to work through their addiction and mental health disorder. MAT involves FDA-approved medications along with behavioral therapy and other measures to keep people focused on achieving full-time sobriety.

Vista Pines Health Can Help 

Vista Pines Health, a Delphi Behavioral Health Group facility located in Pembroke Pines in Broward County, Florida, can help you or your loved one find quality treatment for whether you have experienced a mental breakdown or a psychotic break. As we have covered in this guide, both of these could signal a deeper problem that is worth exploring so that you can get the treatment you need.

We treat clients with various mental health disorders in a comfortable, residential facility that allows them to receive treatment tailored to their needs. Our environment gives them the private space they need to work through their challenges. Here, they will have access to behavioral therapies, therapeutic modalities, and other approaches to support their recovery. No one here is alone; we are here to help every step of the way.

Our 20-bed, accredited facility shares a campus with Arete Recovery, another Delphi facility, to help people who have a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder. If a substance use problem must be addressed, you won’t have to go far as everything you need is here. In alignment with best practices, we believe in treating both types of disorders together.

Our staff-to-client ratios are kept low to ensure our clients receive the personalized care they need. We want to help you or your loved one as soon as possible. Like others in the medical community, we believe in prompt care so that our clients can have the best chance at recovery.

Give us a call today to learn more about how Vista Pines Health can help you with your mental health care needs. Our staff can answer your questions and address your concerns. We can even help you figure out your insurance benefits if you need assistance with that. There are no cookie-cutter plans here. We design every program with our clients in mind. There is time to rebuild your life, and we can help you get started. Reach out to us today.

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