The Mental Battle of a Breakdown and 5 Things I Wish People Close to Us Understood

source: freeimages.com

Today I write to you about something incredibly deeply personal, but something that I wish more people could understand.  Really, to a logical brain it’s impossible to understand, because it is so perfectly illogical. That moment when  a person can hold it together no longer, that moment when all the little things that they have been letting roll off their back like a duck, finally turn on them inside and they splinter into a million pieces. That moment, to one who is purely logical, does not make sense.

There is window, where after a breakdown, they say not to make any big decisions, not to do anything big, not to risk making it happen again, or worse.  That window is 72 hours.  I write to you inside of that window, though nearly 12 hours after the actual break.  Enough time that to the outside, I look normal again.  But, close enough that I can feel all the feels.  I do this because I desperately need to know that there are people out there who can help people like me, and so that the people who support people like me, might get some insight to help those they support.  I am afraid if I wait for the window to close, I won’t be able to share it well enough- to communicate how important it is for people like me, to have people like you, who know how to help us, to be able to understand as best they can.

  (side note, publishing occurred after the window close, since baring this much is exactly the kind of big decision of the type that a person should not be making for 72 hours after a break,)

Most of the time, I am a reasonably logical human being. But the emotional being in me is strong as well.  It’s sensitive, hyper sensitive if you will. I have, at various points in my life battled varying degrees of depression and anxiety. Let’s be clear here, there are so many days that I look normal, so before you discount what I deal with, take a moment to realize that you don’t live in my brain. Depressives can be pretty good at keeping their condition hidden.  They are sometimes referred to as “High Functioning” and I would be one of them.(1)

There is a fundamental problem with all of that hiding- it means that after a time, all the hidden insults the garbage brain tells people like me, that we shut up, will come barreling back at us. And then it happens.

We snap.

For some, this may mean that they literally become catatonic, they no longer connect or care about anything or anyone. For others, they curl up somewhere hidden and cry silently. For others, like me, there is an inconsequential trigger and suddenly they are reduced to the equivalent of a three year child while their body fights their brain and tries so darned hard to drown it all [all the garbage words] out.

To an outsider, I have heard it looks like this: A three year old throwing a tantrum.

How was that for simple?  😉  And, it quite likely does look that way. The ability to communicate what I clearly need is hindered. There is likely much crying. There may come collapsing onto the floor, curling into the fetal position, even more hypersensitivity than normal, possibly throwing things.  To be clear, it does not look like rage, at least it doesn’t with me.  It looks a bit like a three year old who needs a nap and who can’t get that pretty dress on the barbie doll and that dress NEEDS to go on the barbie, and they can’t find the words or say them clearly enough for an adult to know what they need help with.  (That was embarrassing to admit.)

source: freeimages.com

And, if you want to google it, there is lots of information about the things contributing to a break (2), and they are similar to the reasons a three year old might tantrum.  There is quite often a lack of quality sleep (needs a nap), something that needs done (barbie needs dressed), and an inability (real or perceived) to accomplish the task (often exaggerated by the aforementioned lack of sleep), and for whatever reason, an inability to communicate clearly enough to get help. Simply put, a person tired and overwhelmed, for whatever reason.

On the inside though, the battle on the inside is real and can be oh so scary; a battle I hope and pray that no three year old is having in her mind. My daughter has referred to it as emotion brain and logic brain. When such a break like this occurs in me, emotion brain is driving, and it’s driving a garbage truck full of lies. All the horrible lies that a depressive or anxious person tried to shove away for months on end- all the lies that logic brain reminded them were not true in those moments. All of those lies can usually be translated into some manifestation of one sentence:

“You are NOT good ENOUGH.”

Closely followed by:

“You will NEVER be good ENOUGH.”

And then, if the break can’t be reigned back in quickly enough, if the body can’t fight it long enough anymore, emotion brain tells them the worst lie of all:

“The world would be better off WITHOUT YOU.”

The worst part, at least for me, is that I know it’s happening, and I know where it’s going, and I can’t always stop it. By the time this is happening, I have fought silently for too long, there is no strength in my soul left. And this is when I rely so deeply on those around me, those closest to me, who immediately in the aftermath of these breaks are there for me to try to explain, as best I can what just happened.  They are the reason I know the garbage thoughts, they are the reason I know how to tell them that one brain starts driving and I can’t get it ripped out of the drivers seat in time. They are the reason I am still here.

It’s not like I am a puddling mess all the time, in fact, something of this severity might happen once a year or so, unless I am horribly sick. We could get into all the psychology and analysis of how it’s likely a defense mechanism built from a life of stress and trying to deal with some really bad things in my life- but those are things for the people closest to me to understand, as best they can, and something that every person who breaks down like this is also going through on their own level.

However, there are five things that for me, can help pull me back when my brain is splintering and I know I am about to, or have already, fragmented and dissolved into a complete break.

  1. Listen to me.  Firstly, this is just a good thing to do with people in general, but there is a key phrase that I will use, and what I am saying when I am using it is that I am too close, I know I am going to loose it, and I don’t want to.  See, I like attention about as well as the next person.  But I don’t think I need excessive amounts of it.  I certainly don’t stand in a room and demand it from someone, unless…. I am that close, and then, then I will stand there and point blank tell you, while I still have the facilities to communicate clearly: “I am standing here asking you to pay attention to me.”  Pretty much word for word. I might even stomp my foot or clench my fists, because I know, I know that I am about to lose my grip, so I am trying physically to hold on more tightly.  Admittedly, saying this phrase is a learned behavior, because, you see, people can’t read minds, and if I don’t ask for the help or attention I need, when I need it, then they may not realize that I need it.  If you are someone who goes through this, I strongly suggest a key phrase.  It gives a person around you an opportunity to help you.  If you are a supporting person, pay close enough attention to hear the words being said to you.
  2. Don’t tell me I am being Illogical.  This one is so frustrating.  Dude, I know I am being illogical!  I don’t need you to refill the garbage truck that is emptying itself on my brain. I don’t need to shovel out my judgement of myself along with your judgement of me.  If you want to talk down to me, tell me I am being illogical, say this is stupid or any other such things that I am already saying to myself, then you need to just walk away.   That will probably make me more upset in the short term, because as much as one part of me tells me I am not good enough for anyone so I should be alone, the other part of me needs to know that one person can be there for me when I can’t be there for myself.  But walking away is still  better than giving my brain fuel for fire.
    (I think.)
  3. Get me something to drink.  It works with three year olds, and sometimes it works with me. It is incredibly hard to drink and cry at the same time, so at least that helps slow the physical aspects of the break down and it gives something small and generally accomplish-able for the brain to focus on.  There may be some other small activity- such as breathing patterns, that might help as well.
  4. Watch me.  The three year old might hold out the doll and the dress in a last ditch effort to SHOW you what they can’t say.  I will do the same.  I will try to use words, but they will, at a minimum be halting, stuttering and difficult to understand.  If you are wrapped up in something else, care enough to stop that something else, and listen and watch.  I can still nod, I can still shake my head.  I can still usually point or use my body to tell you what I am feeling.  You might even try asking some simple questions that can be answered using these methods: “Do you need me to hold you?” “Do you need space?” “Would you like a drink?”  Thoughtful questions that help logic brain realize that someone else is trying to help too, are good.
  5. Touch Me. Or Don’t touch Me- Act on my cues.  If I am reaching out to you and saying help- If I look like a drowning person- then please, get up and come to me, and pull me to you like you would a drowning person.  Sure, I am not drowning, not in reality, but in my brain I am drowning.  My brain is not in reality anymore, so put some reality back in my brain.  By literally pulling me back from drowning, a lot of things happen.
    • I have irrefutable proof for my brain that someone really does care.
    • My brain is forced to reconcile what it is doing to itself with what is really happening, which initially is confusing, but that invites rational brain to wake up.  It startles emotion brain, and rational brain can start fighting for the wheel to drive that garbage truck right back to the garage in which it belongs.
    • And perhaps the most important thing, it tethers me back to earth. When in a break, the closest words to describe it is that you are so deep inside yourself, that you don’t even feel like you are on earth anymore, things don’t feel real anymore- you are so deep inside your own world, that reality has completely fallen away.  Touch is a quick and efficient way to reintroduce earth and reality.

Alternatively, I might push away from you, I might run or even cower (especially if you are “lording over me”).  My brain is in fight or flight mode, it will startle easily.  If I do these things, then likely I need some space.  Stay near enough so that when I am ready, when my body manages to get my brain to start coming back to reality, I know that there is support for me if I need it, but away enough that I can work on me without feeling trapped.   Again, I am going to be a lot more capable of showing you what I need, than telling you. Try to decipher the body language- like you might with a child.


Now for the disclaimer type stuff.  Each body, each person will have their own things that they need people close to them to know.  The things noted above come from my personal experiences; my personal needs.  I highly encourage those who might break down on occasion to learn enough about themselves to be able to tell those around them what they need.  And then to share that with the people closest to you.  The severity and length of a break can be greatly reduced when the supporting roles in a “breakable” person’s life understand how to help.  How a  breakdown appears can be different for each person- some, like me, will behave like an overtired three year old, others will just stop doing anything, still others might exhibit other ways of trying to cope, this is not a one size fits all deal.  A major life stressor is not required for someone to have a breakdown- there is a mental component that goes far beyond the “outside” stressor.  Internal stressors can cause this too.

Any information contained above is, as stated, based completely on my own personal experiences.  I am not a medical professional.  Information in this article should be not be used as medical advice, or in place of a medical professional’s opinion.  If you are feeling overwhelmed at life, please talk to your doctor.  There are medications and lifestyle changes that may help you.  Your doctor can advise you regarding what he or she believes may help you.   I will say, that my primary care doctor has been my greatest ally when it comes to helping me manage my personal stressors.

I am hopeful that this helps someone out there in cyber world.  ❤




  1. High Functioning Depressive: https://www.promises.com/resources/help-family-friends/high-functioning-depression/
  2. http://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/nervous-breakdown#symptoms2

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