What to do About a Nervous Breakdown
This feature appeared in Here’s Health in the ’70’s. While dated it still has some useful information. The personal information is also dated. See updated information.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Tony Crisp. aged 35, a convert to the healthy way of life from his early teens, is deeply interested in yoga and balanced nutrition. He is a well-known and accomplished author and has written a number of books including Yoga and Relaxation, Yoga and Childbirth, and Do You Dream? He teaches “Yoga and Relaxation” in further education classes in North Devon and has taught at Tyringham Naturopathic Clinic, Buckinghamshire. Together with his wife Brenda, and their four children, he runs a small food reform guest house in North Devon.
Dealing with a Breakdown
Half the battle of dealing with a breakdown is won by understanding what may have caused the situation
It is difficult, especially if you work or live in a large town, to avoid some degree of this stress illness. I have, myself, twice experienced t h e depression and physical exhaustion of this civilised sickness. It creeps up on you gradually, unseen only because you ignore the warning signs. Then, one day, or one week, a sudden crisis may explode into your conscious life, that has been bubbling away under the surface for ages.
Suddenly you cannot face going to work, or meeting people, or leaving the house. All your hopes, plans, activities, achievements, turn sour and appear empty, meaningless and even sickening. Sometimes it occurs that for a trivial reason you explode emotionally. or even become violent.
With others there is a tremendous and almost violent withdrawal into themselves.
Really, the term “nervous breakdown” covers many different symptoms that may have as many different causes. What we really mean is that suddenly we are unable to cope with life. Events, people. emotions, duties, responsibility, ideals, become too much for us, and we feel as if life is a cat, and we are the mouse it is playing with.
As I have already said, most of us at some time suffer nervous breakdown, if only in a minor degree. Excessive tiredness, withdrawal, or great irritability are some of the symptoms. If these symptoms are progressively developing, or you suffer frequent nightmares, unaccountable fears, and feelings of being of no value, and working fruitlessly, it is best to stop for a while and take stock.
Understanding What is Happening
Half the battle of dealing with yourself if you experience a breakdown, is won by understanding what may have caused the situation. Or possibly “cause” is the wrong word, maybe “function” or “mechanism” are better. For even if you know the cause, unless you have an idea of what is going on inside you, physically and mentally, you still might not be able to cope with things.
For instance, R. D. Laing gives the example of Jesse Watkins. Jesse had been a merchant seaman. He had changed his job. He was working seven days a week, and was bitten on the hand by a dog. Subsequently he went to hospital for stitches, where he was given his first local anaesthetic.
All seemed well until Jesse returned home, when he noticed that time seemed to be slowing up, and eventually going backwards. He then began to “babble on”. A doctor was called and he was hospitalised for ten days, in a very confused state. It was a firm conscious resolve on the part of Jesse not to allow himself to stay in this inner confusion, that eventually produced a healing change in his condition.
In my own case, both times I felt utterly exhausted physically. This was accompanied by strong desires to withdraw from all activities, to give up all my plans and work and efforts, family and social, These feelings alarmed me because I thought I was becoming hateful and cynical.
At that time I had taken a job with very regular hours whereas previously, for many years, I had worked until late at night and most weekends. So I would arrive home from work, eat, doze on the settee, rouse myself about ten, and go to bed. I became alarmed that this was the pattern of my life ahead, lacking any interest in life and people. It was only when I began to acknowledge certain things about myself that improvement began.
Recently a friend told me about her breakdown following hepatitis. For many months she could not bring herself to leave her house. She felt threatened and exposed to unseen dangers if she went out. Fear, like a barrier, prevented her from living a normal life. So real was this wall of fear that, if she walked out, the pressure of it seemed to smother her and cause her difficulty in breathing. The real turning point in her recovery came when she changed her diet and found enough strength to make a decision. She told me, “I decided I would walk right through the fear and out the other side.”
Here we have three different people’s experiences of a similar illness. As can be seen, it is only similar in its widest sense. Nevertheless, if we examine these cases in more detail, possibly general issues will arise that will be helpful to you if you are in a similar predicament.
Jesse arrived at his breakdown through overwork and several types of shock. The strain of a new job of being bitten-of hospital treatment. It is very likely that the shocks would not have produced such a dramatic illness if the scene had not already been set by overwork.
My own condition was triggered by years of working seven days a week, while that of my friend was due to illness. Some of the causes may therefore be: overwork; shock, such as new situations; loss of some-one dear; accidents or injury; illness or operation; childbirth; and so on.
Sometimes though, these are triggers rather than causes. They release a condition that either already exists through nutritional debits, or psychological predisposition. A man who has a terror of spiders may seem perfectly healthy, psychologically, until a spider appears.
While, from the nutritional standpoint, it has been proved by the use of human volunteers that the absence of just niacin (vitamin B6) in the daily diet over a short period of time can cause major psychological breakdown. In severe cases this ends in complete withdrawal and eventually death. As shock, stress, overwork and illness produce enormous demands on the body’s resources and nutritional intake, vitamin and mineral debits can be either the cause, or contributory
factors in a breakdown. This is especially so in regard to the B vitamins and such minerals as calcium, magnesium, iron and sodium.
The mechanics or function of breakdown now begin to be understandable, but obviously there is still a great deal more to the situation. Some cases will be cured by adequate nutrition alone, while others are due to psychological tangles and, while improved by nutritional treatment, will not be cured by it.
Anxiety Laid Bare
What has often happened in these cases is that fears have been uncovered by illness, shock or stress. It is difficult to explain this except by analogy. If a sea serpent is thrashing about at the bottom of the sea, it in no way endangers the sailors floating above it. If something evaporates the water however, exposing the serpent, there is every chance that boats may be endangered. Similarly, all of us have fears, problems, hates and passions so deep down in us we may know little or nothing about them-unless they are uncovered. Illness, shock and stress, remove the protective layers of our being, exposing our inadequacies. Drugs such as LSD do the same thing, thus the danger for those unprepared to face their own psychological problems. Most people who have lived a full life will realise for themselves that circumstances often reveal previously unknown fears.
If we are trying to help ourselves, a difficulty exists here in judging our own situation. Everybody has unconscious fears. The difficulty lies in judging whether our breakdown is due to more than average inner problems pushing to the surface; or if stress has removed the buffer condition of health, revealing normal fears.
As a very basic guide, if it is the B vitamins you lack, this will usually show as a heavily coated tongue, which may also be creviced and scalloped at the front tip. As the B vitamins and protein play an enormous part m digestion, there is usually poor digestive ability, flatulence, and sometimes acidity. This is a vicious circle unless broken, in that the impaired digestion cannot supply the sick body with the nutrients vitally needed.
Enormous amounts of the B vitamins, especially niacin, with adequate protein such as brewers’ yeast powder, often perform wonders. Sufficient A, C, D and E vitamins should be taken, as indicated by one’s health, along with kelp and bonemeal tablets. Sleeplessness, muscle cramps, hot flushes and depression particularly indicate these. The very fact of our nervous breakdown points to the greater need for us to look to the basics of our physical health.
There is also a great deal more we can learn of practical value about the mental emotional side of the problem. The trouble here is that some helpful instinctive drives are usually mixed up with a lot of negative emotions. In my own experience, it was only gradually that I learnt to sort them out and apply the one and deal with the other.
For instance, the instinctive urge to withdraw and sleep and be quiet is usually well worth following. The fact that the instinct is usually accompanied by the fear of failure, feelings of cynicism, depression and irritability, may make the doctor and us lump them all together as things to be avoided. This is not so. Because the protective layers of our being have been eroded, revealing our tormented emotions, it also puts us much nearer to our helpful instincts, which, like our fears, are usually covered up.
I, personally, feared that if I gave way to my desire for withdrawal it would never end. I feared that it would be a permanent thing, and I would never wish to go out again, or be active in plans for creative projects. I had to learn to disentangle the emotions and fears of failure from the instinct to rest and be still for a while. I had to learn to trust the instinct.
Looking back of course, I can see it was plain common sense, but this does not seem so at the time, and the need for rest is not acknowledged. But these instinctive urges, if followed, gradually lead to health, and the urge to communicate, to get out, then emerges again naturally, quite by itself. Many people attempt to fight the withdrawal urges, and force themselves to be bright and communicative.
I must admit that you have to be careful not to become enmeshed in the emotions that arise with the desire to withdraw, but this is quite different. It is the difference between saying to ourselves, “I want to withdraw because I am a failure, no good, and nobody likes me,” and “I want to withdraw because physically and emotionally I have overdone things and must rest. My feelings of failure and depression are like the physical symptoms of tiredness. These symptoms of body and mind will gradually disappear as things right themselves.”
With one attitude we say “I” am a failure, “I” am depressed, and are enmeshed in our emotions; in the other attitude we are saying “Because of my condition I am experiencing depression and feelings of failure.” A person who has a cold in the head feels fairly certain that in a few days it will disappear. Yet people who suffer sudden depression often feel their whole life has crumbled, whereas it is just as much of a foreign condition as the cold. If you can see it as such, then sometimes one of the best ways of dealing with such fears is to walk right up to them, like my friend did, and out the other side.
Jung, the psychiatrist, also advised some of his patients who felt they were drowning in fear that, if they had the courage, the best way out was to dive down into the very terror they were struggling to avoid.
Exactly what does that mean? To repeat-see the depression or fear not as something you are, but as something you are experiencing, as with a cold. When we have a cold, if we are wise, we know that the healing forces of our body are trying to rid us of the irritation. Therefore we try to help the natural recuperative powers by resting, keeping warm, not eating too much, but making sure we take those things the body needs in its fight against infection, such as vitamins C and A.
Similarly, healing forces are at work during a breakdown, but often we literally fight against them and will not let the sickness come to the surface because we are terrified of it. For instance, a cold may produce in our body’s healing activity a higher temperature, sore throat, and tiredness. Despite this we do not attempt to fight these symptoms by taking icy baths, fighting tiredness by walking miles, etc. These symptoms are only signs of our body throwing off the cold. Yet, during a breakdown, most people fight tooth and nail against the healing activity, when the mind, plugged up from having years of negative, self grasping, ambitious, commercial and selfish emotions and desires crammed into it, attempts to throw them out. Fearing that we are going mad, we are terrified of allowing ourselves to experience these fears, insecurities and passions, attempting to push them all back. This is just as strange as forcing all the mucus back up our nose instead of blowing it, but we do it.
Therefore, to sum up, first make sure the basics of your physical needs are met in regard to diet, rest and exercise. Be ready to listen to the voice of your instincts. This may, for a time, lead to withdrawal. But it may also point out that you have been living out of harmony with your physical and emotional needs, and may require you to change your ways.
Learn to see your emotions as much as possible as something you are experiencing, rather than as yourself. And if you can do this, then let the hateful, tearful, awful feelings come up and out. Be willing to experience them rather than attempt to push them back.