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Main article: Mental disorders

Although not a medical term, the phrase "nervous breakdown" is often used outside medical circles to describe a sudden and acute attack of mental illness—for instance, clinical depression or anxiety disorder—in a previously outwardly healthy person. Breakdowns are the result of chronic and unrelenting nervous strain, and not a sign of weakness.

The classical scenario is of an individual who is observed by close associates to suddenly not be able to continue with their usual routines of life and relationships, instead unable to cope with it by losing their drive and focus.

As with any other machine, the human body will start to malfunction when put under too much stress. In common usage "nervous breakdown" does not have a clinical definition, and no reputable doctor would use it in serious diagnosis, instead focusing on definite symptoms and underlying causes. One common diagnosis used in this case is brief reactive psychosis. Some have argued that a nervous breakdown can actually be a good thing in the long run, because (a) it forces the person to take a proper time-out to rest and recuperate and (b) the patient will have to deal with the issues that caused the breakdown in order to recover fully.

Causes of breakdown include chronic and unresolved grief, unemployment, career changes and other work-related stress, stress from school, serious or chronic illness in a family member, divorce, death of a family member, and other sudden major life changes. Whatever the cause, the message to the sufferer is that they now become aware of their limits of tolerance to stress, the usual outcome eventually is a more robust personality that interacts with stresses of life with more self care, although this may take time—sometimes years.

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