A breakdown of nervous breakdowns

From the Guardian.co.uk

There’s a lot in the world to get stressed about lately. This last week alone we’ve seen bombings and city-wide gunfights in Boston, massive explosions in Texas, on-going violence in the Middle East, emotions raised over Thatcher’s funeral, increasing measles cases in Swansea, continuing savage benefit cuts and maybe an alien invasion or two that got lost among the onslaught of bad news.

It seems to many that the world in general is becoming an increasingly awful and depressing place. Is this the case? Or is there as much bad stuff happening as there’s ever been, but 24-hour rolling news and an increasingly interconnected, always-online society have contributed to ensuring that no bad news ever goes unreported? Either way, it doesn’t really matter; the negative effects on people’s wellbeing are the same.

But the things covered in the news, as terrible as they can be, are more “mainstream” worries; things that everyone can worry about to some extent. The more typical concerns people have tend to be more specific, as they’re things that affect them personally and directly and maybe affect them alone.

When stressful events keep occurring, you will often hear people claim they are heading for a “nervous breakdown”. You may be someone who says this, or you may be someone who has experienced (or is experiencing) such a thing. It’s a well-known concept. Even celebrities are vulnerable to nervous breakdowns. Stephen Fry has spoken candidly about his breakdown, Spike Milligan had several, and the Rolling Stones claim to have had at least 19 (although that may be an exaggeration).

But “nervous breakdown” seems to be one of those terms that is often used but not well understood. As a neuroscientist, I always find myself reflexively thinking it means nervous tissue is breaking down, so means someone is suffering from a neurodegenerative disorder like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. This may seem a bit ridiculous, but then what does “nervous breakdown” actually mean? Is it one of those terms that people use freely without understanding the actual meaning, like “irony” or “offside”? Interestingly, despite its widespread use, “nervous breakdown” isn’t a term that is used by the medical profession.

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