Four Steps to Help Navigate a Breakdown
Sometimes breaking down is waking up.
Years ago, I went through a breakdown that brought everything to a screeching halt and prompted an enormous change in my life.
My grandmother said it used to be called a “nervous breakdown,” and apparently she had one too, about the same age as me. My grandmother said nervous breakdowns were never talked about.
Back then, people referred to it with shame and disgust. She told me that people would “go away” for a while, either to a hospital or at home. The whole affair would be neatly tucked under the carpet while everyone else went on with their lives, waiting for the person as if they were on a long trip somewhere. Once they returned, everyone would act like nothing happened.
I suspect that tucking away breakdowns was more about avoiding something that poked at uncomfortable boundaries.
It seems nothing much has changed with regard to mental health crises like nervous breakdowns. Few people want to get near it because of stigma, but also because of the uncertainty that surrounds it. If someone we thought was ‘stable’ suddenly breaks down, we may wonder, “Can that happen to me too?”
What used to be referred to as a nervous breakdown is now absorbed into a variety of mental health symptoms and illnesses. Since many of the symptoms overlap with other mental illnesses, experts felt that it was more accurate to focus on diagnosing and treating those issues.
However, this may cover-up an issue that still needs discussion and awareness. Many people are still having “nervous breakdowns.”
Although it’s true that many of these breakdowns could mark the beginnings of mental illnesses, such as depression and bipolar disorder, there are still many people for whom the actual breakdown is a temporary situation, requiring a different approach.
This was certainly the case for me. I have struggled with clinical depression and anxiety, but when I had my breakdown, I knew that it was different somehow.
I had taken medication for depression in the past, but this time, drugs made everything worse. My body revolted against them; I became more nervous, less able to sleep, panic-stricken, and slightly suicidal.
I was acutely aware of the increased numbing sensation from the medication which, in the past was a welcomed effect, but this time, it felt completely wrong. Something in me knew this wasn’t the way to go.
Now that nervous breakdowns are not observed as much in mental health diagnosis and treatment discussions, we don’t really know where they fit. Are we depressed, psychotic, anxious, all of the above?
For me, it was a mix of extreme stress, repressed trauma, and an existential crisis; another term rarely used nowadays, but which still holds weight.
At the time, I felt like I was traveling a road not yet paved, except that I remember my grandmother telling me about her breakdown and it felt incredibly accurate to what was happening.
The only thing I could commit to was rest and an exploration of my inner psyche. It was like mining through my body, mind, and soul with a gentle intention to look for clues.
If you find yourself at the beginning of a breakdown, I can offer some advice, based on my experience, about what might help. The first few months are crucial; if you navigate them well, it will keep you stable while creating a new opening in your life.
Step 1: Resist “Doing”
We’re trained by our social circles and society that when you have a problem, you must do something about it. Productivity gurus like to tell people that when they don’t know what to do, do anything. The thought is that making any decision is better than making none, but this doesn’t help when it comes to a breakdown.
The body is exhausted, overwhelmed, and fragile. The last thing you need is to make decisions out of a delicate place. At best, the decisions will not be authentic, at worst, they can actually be harmful. Taking action from a place of panic is never a good idea.
I found that in the beginning, rest is the only thing you need. This includes rest from stimulation, talking, learning, working, and anything else that makes you feel worse. I know that this may be difficult in terms of work, finances, childcare, and other responsibilities. But if you’re able to juggle some things to find a way to rest for at least a few weeks to a month, you’ll be better off.
Step 2: Do NOT Resist “Feeling”
Often, a breakdown may be the direct result of suppressing many feelings, thoughts, wishes, and desires. We’re taught that really sitting with our emotions is against the grain of a healthy and productive life. But this is not true.
People who are thought to “wallow” in their feelings are considered weak, unproductive, and attention-seeking. However, wallowing may be precisely what you need for a little while. You may be someone who wasn’t allowed to have feelings or to express them. This may be your time to do that. Know that you won’t stay like this forever.
No one enjoys wallowing for a long time, so if you’re doing it, then it may be something you need.
While we’re at it, let’s re-frame wallowing, shall we? We usually look at it as an unrestrained indulgence in something that may have a negative effect. But in this case, you’re spending quality time with your feelings, rolling around in them like an animal in the mud. Out of this comes a deeper understanding of who you are, what you want, and what you don’t want.
Make this wallowing intentional. Set up a safe space for your feelings that nurtures them. Give yourself a time limit if that feels better. For me, I took six months off work, and I made my apartment into a quiet place of reflection where I could safely feel everything.
Step 3: Practice Self-Compassion
This is not a time for judgment. As much as you feel compelled to beat yourself up about having a breakdown—stop. I guarantee that it makes everything much worse. You’re not a failure, and you didn’t do anything wrong.
Breakdowns don’t wait for you to be in the right place at the right time. Many people who have had breakdowns will tell you that it wasn’t something they could control. Since much of our fear stems from things we can’t control, breakdowns can put us into a shitstorm of fear and anxiety.
It’s tempting to turn back on ourselves as the source for why everything has fallen apart. But this choice is like putting one foot on the brake and the other on the gas at the same time. It gets you nowhere except to burn all your inner fuel that could go into your recovery.
Having compassion for ourselves means we put our energy into self-care. We talk to ourselves the way we would to a cherished loved one. We tell ourselves that everything will be ok in time. We do things like hot baths, nourishing food, cups of tea, or whatever feels like self-care to you.
An important note—self-care is not numbing out with alcohol, drugs, food, sex, and other addictive behaviors. However, if you have addictions, that may be the first place to start in your breakdown journey. Don’t judge it, but be open to what exists in you that makes you want to numb out.
Step 4: Practice Curiosity
That brings me to the last step. Make it a mantra to get curious about what’s happening. Repeating statements like, “I commit to staying curious about what’s happening in me,” or “What can I learn from this experience?” can really shift your perspective and calm things down.
I believe at the heart of all breakdowns is a surfacing of suppressed feelings and energy. Often, our traumatic past may need to be heard and explored. Perhaps you need to learn some emotional resilience tools. Or maybe you’re living a life that isn’t authentic and doesn’t make you happy.
Once you can get into a compassionate place with yourself, curiosity will carry you through. When you feel yourself moving into judgment and panic, come back to your curiosity mantra.
It’s only out of this calm place of curiosity that you can figure out what to “do” or what is your next solid step.
I did eventually make it out of that breakdown.
I was not the same person I was before it happened. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of subjective perception. For me, it was a good thing. I was able to reconcile years of trauma and destructive social conditioning and realign to who I really am.
In my experience, breakdowns are not a bad thing, contrary to what our history says about them. I believe they can be fertile ground for removing toxic energy and building a new life that may be more authentic. It’s only by working from our authentic selves that we can cultivate our gifts and give them to the world.
Sometimes we need to break down so we can wake up.