Stress breakdown

Stress is something we feel when the demands made on us exceed our ability to cope with them. Stress turns into anxiety when those demands feel threatening to our wellbeing. If stress and anxiety are intense and/or prolonged they can completely overwhelm the nervous system and the person suffers what is often described as a nervous breakdown, nervous collapse, or stress breakdown.

Parts of the cerebral cortex of the brain actually shut down and the sufferer is assaulted with a host of disturbing physical and mental symptoms because of the triggering of the ‘flight or fight’ response to threat. But because they cannot actually run away from what is stressing them or fight off the threat, they remain trapped, and must endure the stress without any way of escaping it.

The sufferer may be swamped by severe anxiety or feelings of dread and foreboding that have no obvious or immediate cause. They may lose control over their emotions and cry uncontrollably or become irrationally irritable and angry. Or they may lack all motivation and be incapacitated by fatigue. They may be nervous and agitated and fear they are on the verge of losing control of themselves and some fear they are losing their minds.

They may find all sensory stimulation intolerable. A friend who suffered a breakdown because of the constant stress of a destructive relationship described to me how sound was so amplified that she couldn’t bear the noise of traffic, a dog bark, or TV or radio, how sunlight seemed so blinding that she longed for darkness and how she felt as though all her nerves were on the outside of her skin and every touch was like an assault. She even found the pressure of her clothes unbearable.

When stress-overload weakens coping capacities, over-reaction and hair-trigger responses are common and so is withdrawal from anything that imposes demands, stimulates, or is even minutely stressful, even in a good way. So the sufferer may avoid meeting new people, learning new tasks, travelling, even going on holiday might be too much for them.

The smallest things can seem overwhelming and the over-stressed may become so disorganized, or lack the energy required to regulate their thoughts that they might ignore such basic things as paying bills and personal grooming, or even eating. And if such small things are beyond them, anything more important, such as going to the doctor or dentist or having their car serviced, is beyond them. Their emotional resources are exhausted, their energy depleted, life in general is more than they can manage.

The person experiencing a stress breakdown suffers acutely. It is an extremely distressing and incapacitating condition but unfortunately many people do not recognize or understand it. Some people respond to the sufferer with suspicion (they are probably just ‘putting it on’ to get attention), dismissal, disinterest, or contempt, (because the sufferer