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Nervous Breakdowns

Updated on May 21, 2012

Are You Going Crazy?

Have you ever wondered if you were having a nervous breakdown? Did you think you may be losing it, or just plain going crazy? Not just a "little touched" as we say in the south affectionately, but more like bat guano crazy?

In the middle of a nervous breakdown (of the panic attack variety) many people wonder if they are going to "lose it," go crazy, or die of a heart attack or suffocation. These terms are often used to give a name to the unsettling symptoms of panic attacks, especially the anxiety attacks that include hyperventilation. Individuals who are dealing with anxiety and worry - day in and day out - are also more likely to experience panic attacks as well.

Anxiety Attacks: How the Nervous Breakdown Breaks

If you are one of more than 1 in 20 Americans who have frequent panic attacks throughout their lifetime, you may recoginze most of these symptoms, and know them all too well: a sense of feeling suffocation, rapid heart beat, cold and sweaty hands, trembling, dizzyness, a spike in blood pressure, frequent rapid shallow breathing, chest pain, and of course the already mentioned fears of going crazy, losing it, and having a nervous breakdown.

These symptoms begin as anxiety. Accustomed as anxious people are to being tense and stressed - see a discussion of the fight or flight response to understand why - they generally have too much adrenaline, too much cortisol, too much tension, and too much oxxygen. As the anxiety attacks build they breathe more and more frequently, with deep shallow breaths. The result is too much oxygen.

As explained in the video, the body gets tricked by its own regulating system, which can not distinguish why the oxygen is out of balance, only that it is. The person experiencing hyperventilation as part of his panic attack, mistakenly tries hard to breathe more oxygen, when in fact the increase of oxygen makes the spiraling "nervous breakdown" that much worse. While it eventually passes (often in as little as a half hour) the person who has faced it is usually certain eith that they had a heart attack or that they were going crazy.

Several interventions are effective in bringing panic attacks under control. Anti-anxiety medication is very effective because it is fast acting, but the use as a symptom treatment for panic is controversial, and because tolerance can develop for most of the minor tranquilizers, many prefer to avoid the addictive potenial by working on overcoming anxiety.

Related Mental Health Problems

Psychologists and psychiatrists do not really use terms like "going crazy" or "nervous breakdown" to describe patients. Probably the closest mental illnesses to what the patient fears are the psychoses: especially schizophrenia, paranioa, and Bipolar Disorder when it becomes psychotic. Psychotic individuals often have hallucinations and delusions. They frequently are disturbed by seeing things or hearing voices that are not there, or they may believe that others are out to do them harm. But while individuals experiencing an anxiety attack is usually afraid (even when they know better) with the exception of paranoid individuals fear is often not a central component of the psychoses.

Another apparently "crazy" symptom that looks like psychosis but belongs instead to the anxiety disorder spectrum, are the voices frequently heard by clients who have PTSD. These individuals are sometimes mistaken for crazy, but are typically instead using a defense known as dissociation to cope with the tramatic events. They also may feel a sense that things are not real or that they are not themselves, both of which can be described by the client as a worry about going crazy or having a nervous breakdown. This is of course erroneous.

Many armchair psychologists think they understand phrases like these, and the term "insanity," but the latter is also not a clinical, but rather a legal term.


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