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Name: Renee Nuckols
Status: N/A
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: Around 1993

Physiologically, what causes a mental/nervous breakdown besides normal everyday stress? Is it a process that kills neurons? Also please include some internal and external symptoms that occur prior to, during, and after a nervous breakdown.

"Nervous breakdown" may be a misnomer, though. What "breaks down" is not so much the nerves and neurons, but the adrenal glands. A more accurate term would be the "exhaustion phase of the general adaption syndrome," but obviously that is quite a mouthful. Excessive STRESS is what can cause "nervous breakdowns." Stress includes the obvious things like exam pressures, trouble with parents or teachers, peer pressure, but also includes things like a significant personal achievement, making a major purchase, changes in routines of life (sleeping, eating habits), moving to a different part of town - even the change in seasons and temperatures. It can come from almost anything which causes a disturbance in normal living. Stress triggers a number of physiological changes collectively termed "GENERAL ADAPTATION SYNDROME." There are three phases: 1) alarm, 2) resistance, and 3) exhaustion. These phases are controlled and regulated by the adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands lie just above your kidneys and are composed of inner and outer parts. The inner part is called the adrenal medulla, and it secretes the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones help your body deal with stressful situations. If you were alone and met a gang in some back alley, your adrenal glands would flood your body with the hormones, your blood pressure, heart rate, sweat production would shoot way high! Your body is in a "FIGHT or FLIGHT" mode. (Just thinking about getting in such a situation may have caused some stress!) Well, whenever your body deals with smaller stresses, the same hormones are released. The outer part of the adrenal glands is the adrenal cortex. They also produce hormones, but slightly different ones: glucocorticoids and mineralcorticoids. Glucocorticoids can increase blood sugar levels profoundly, while mineralcorticoids affect mineral excretion. These hormones are largely responsible for helping the body deal with prolonged stress. They help provide extra energy and blood supply. For instance, if you had a whole week of finals, your adrenal cortex would work overtime as you burn the midnight oil studying. These instances are the "resistance" phase of the general adaptation syndrome.

Now, STRESS can accumulate to a point when it is impossible to cope. You feel like pulling your hair, giving up, screaming, etc. Or, you are having a "nervous breakdown." What is happened is you have reached the "exhaustion" stage of the general adaptation syndrome. Essentially, the adrenal cortex has depleted stores of glucocorticoids, and your cells cannot get the extra sugar and nutrients they need to cope. Furthermore, minerals like potassium are excreted, causing an unbalanced mineral status. These causes place tremendous loads on the heart, blood vessels, immune system, brain, and virtually every other part of your body. Exhaustion can be a collapse of one specific organ or of the entire body. Psychological stress has even been linked to cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, asthma, menstrual problems, PMS, arthritis, colitis, ulcers, heart disease, depression, and depression. Signs of impending exhaustion: fatigue, irritation, loss of appetite or insatiable appetite, chronic high blood pressure, thoughts of giving up, loss of interest in what use to provide pleasure. For a few tips as to how to avoid "nervous breakdowns." Stress management can include exercise, stretching, meditation, relaxation, biofeedback, massage, taking a vacation, getting enough sleep, talking to a good listener, eating well-balanced meals, etc. In other words, try to get away from stress regularly - set apart times in the day to refresh. Taking some vitamins and minerals may help, too. Potassium is lost to a great degree during stressful situations, so eat an extra banana or take a potassium tablet. Vitamin C is known to support the adrenal glands, so eat lots of fruits and vegetables, or take a C tablet. Good nutrition is very important, so if you live off fast food, it may do some good to add some fruits, nuts, juices, whole grain cereals, and a multiple vitamin/mineral supplement to your diet.


I commend wizkid on an excellent review of nervous exhaustion. I would only add that the term "nervous breakdown" also is often a laymen's term for many sorts of psychological/psychiatric disorders. These can include things like anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, schizophrenic spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorders, and probably a few other things as well. We are still learning about the brain physiology involved in these disorders. Generally though, anxiety disorder after seem to involve GABA receptors, depressive disorders involve adrenergic/serotinergic systems and the psychotic disorders (ie schizophrenia) involve dopaminergic systems. Areas of the brain that seem important for these disorders include the locus ceruleus (panic/anxiety), frontal lobes (schizophrenia), and the hippocampal regions (obsessive compulsive disorder).

Lou Harnisch

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