Relax, You Are Not Having a 'Nervous Breakdown'

Are you having a nervous breakdown? Doubtful, as "nervous breakdowns" are not a real thing.

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Are you having a nervous breakdown? Doubtful, as "nervous breakdowns" are not a real thing. It's just a phrase we use when we're "burned out," "anxious," "overwrought," or "on the edge." As Melinda Beck writes in a semi-trend, semi-historical, semi-service piece in today's Wall Street Journal, "'Nervous breakdown' was never an official diagnosis, just a popular euphemism and convenient catch-all for the inability to function due to psychological stress." We may have come a long way from the days of diagnosing women with "hysteria," but we still persist in using the pseudo science phrase "nervous breakdown," which has yet to be included the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

So, why do we keep saying it, if we do keep saying it? (Beck says it appears more common than in years past, but "with no official definition there is little firm data": She points to a 2000 report that used data from 1996 indicating the percentage of people reporting "impending nervous breakdowns" was up a few percentage points from the '70s, and more so from the '50s. Meanwhile, Google nGram actually seems to chart a decline in the use of the phrase in the last few years, with a spike in the nervous-breakdown heyday of the 1940s.)

Doctors interviewed by the Journal do seem to back the claim that people are saying it more, with clinical psychologist Katherine Muller calling it a semantic thing: "The term lives on in our culture, maybe because it seems to capture so well what people feel when they are distressed." According to David Hellerstein, a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, this is the fault of the economy: "Given the economic mess we're in, a lot of people are coming in saying they think they're on the verge of a nervous breakdown," he says.

Back in the old days (as in, the 1900s), "nervous breakdowns" actually became a bit of a status term, and even "a respectable career path" among the artsy. The wealthy had nervous breakdowns, to recuperate from in fancy retreats, while the poor simply "went insane" and were committed to asylums. Nowadays, perhaps the same thing is happening, with the retro term thrown around as a catchall among certain sets of people to refer to something that is, basically, stress. Writes Beck:

"It isn't really a disorder—it's modern life," says Prudence Gourguechon, past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association. "We all know what it feels like. Your capacity to act as an adult is exceeded by the demands on you at the moment, for whatever reason."

Obviously, and you're preaching to the choir, Prudence. But if we don't have a two-word phrase (not "modern life," please!) to encapsulate that feeling perfectly, we get really anxious. Can we coin something new? "Technical difficulties," perhaps?

Image via Shutterstock via Blaj Gabriel.

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