Being in my line of work, I often get friends and family approaching me about mental health questions. Sometimes specific, but sometimes very general as well and I notice some commonalities between them. Almost everyone wants to know about anxiety, and further, why it seems to be so prevalent in society today.
Are people getting “softer”? Is the world turning towards more and more depravity? Or are we just talking about something that’s always been there?
It used to be that a nervous breakdown was a sort of “snap” that the incredibly overworked person experienced. Shouting “I just can’t take it anymore!” they quit their job and stormed out of the office.
Maybe in the days that follow they began to lose sight of cleanliness and things fell apart. Whispers began back at the office, “did you hear what happened to Steve?” “He just couldn’t take the pressure I guess…” and then life went on.
This is the idea of the nervous breakdown we got from film and media. However, more and more I hear about individuals experiencing what they call a nervous breakdown and we begin to wonder why they occur. Where are all these nervous breakdowns coming from and is there anything we can do to help?
What is a Nervous Breakdown?
First of all, what are we calling a nervous breakdown? A “nervous breakdown” isn’t really a technical term, so I think we can look at this with a pretty broad stroke. I’m going to call a nervous breakdown any time we feel like our capacity to handle stress is exceeded by the events in our life. Let me give you an image to illustrate this.
Everyone has a cup. For some, it might be dainty like a tea cup, for others, it is a large stein, maybe even a milk jug. Everything in that range of cups has a certain volume or capacity. Every thing that stresses us is like a liquid that is poured into that cup.
Have a bill coming up? That’s a couple of drops. Do you have a sick parent? That’s going to be worth a couple inches at least. Getting married? While it’s a positive thing, it’s definitely a major stressor! Stubbed your toe? That goes in too!
Notice that we don’t compartmentalize these different stressors, but instead experience all this stress the same (a side note, we actually do have a hormone in our bodies called cortisol that is released when we are experiencing stress!). As stress (and cortisol) rises in us, we begin to have negative reactions to this.
This is our capacity. Everyone has a capacity for stress, and this is analogous to the volume of that cup. As the stress level rises and every life event is being poured into our cup, we begin to have less and less room for other things. When our stress level begins to exceed our capacity, our cup overflows and that’s when things fall apart. This is what I’m calling a nervous breakdown – when our cup overflows.
Issues that Contribute to Nervous Breakdowns
Now let’s take a look at what I think are issues that contribute to the ever-rising stresses in our society that lead to our cups overflowing! First, let’s look at how teenagers are being affected by this. I think the name of the game today is competition.
Teens are constantly in some sort of social competition that is both self-inflicted and forced upon them by society. They are under immense pressure to do well in school, hold a part-time job, make friends, look presentable, balance family, balance hormones, eat well, and so much more. All the while, they are doing this without yet having a solid sense of themselves.
Teen and young adult years are years of self exploration into interests and developing who you are and what you believe. The pressure to succeed is that much harder when you don’t have a solid foundation from which to move forward!
Complicating these pressures, in the modern age, there’s sort of what I am going to call a “window out” problem. Teenagers are looking out of their windows and seeing what all their peers are projecting into the world. While they look out, they also look at their reflections and see themselves. However, what everyone projects is a sort of highlight reel of their lives.
I call this the Instagram affect – everyone posts on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter their best picture (out of 100 that they took), or their travel destinations (but not the arduous time it took to get there). Teenagers look out and see how well all their friends are doing, and then see their own reflection as it is in the moment.
This two way mirror shows them their average when they see their friends’ best. Social media is the main culprit for this and a major reason why I believe, that teenagers are having so many more mental health issues today than ever before. Rather than experiencing their friends, they are watching them. This feels incredibly isolating and drives them to try and compete. The pressures get to them, and over time lead to their cups overflowing.
Adults are facing many of the same pressures! We used to call it “keeping up with the Joneses,” but the fact is that there is an engrained competition for status and a desire to be seen. In our culture, we value physical signs of success – signs that can be seen by our friends and neighbors. We place emphasis on the yard, on the car, on the house; the things others can see we give places of prominence in our lives.
Previously, these were things to brag about and which we could sort of inflate, like a big fish story. However, with the advent of technology, there is an expectation to post our success on our social media.
Maybe you think to yourself, “well I don’t really use Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat like the kids do.” How about LinkedIn? Are you constantly trying to vie for attention from your peers via the cover of networking? How about all that asking for endorsements? LinkedIn, although, under the guise of a professional service, still exists as a public forum where we constantly put ourselves out for judgement.
While we are feeling many of the same pressures as kids are as our lives slowly become an open window for all to see through, we adults face pressures kids (fortunately) do not yet face in large numbers.
Prime among these, money issues are often at the heart of many nervous breakdowns. We feel pressure to make money and every year things get more expensive and we are expected to pay for more. Cellphone, TV, and internet easily double utility bills from what they would be without them, but 30 years ago cellphone and internet were not bills that were even on anyone’s radar!
Even further, with the most recent iPhone releases, we are becoming desensitized to $1000 phones (a side note: it’s beginning to concern me how easy it is to spend $800+ on a cell phone but the same price for 6-8 sessions of therapy seems to be too high of a cost!). The fact remains, though, that the cost of living has gone up and up but our wages haven’t risen correspondingly.
Further, we are living longer and longer, so we are having to plan for a longer and longer retirement, and perhaps taking care of our parents as they have already outlived their retirement savings themselves! Money is a valid and major concern, and its increasing stress is adding a major volume of liquid to our cups, leading them to overflow.
A final note on elements contributing to rising amounts of nervous breakdowns, we are living in the age of information. Every day we hear about shootings, robberies, social problems, shortcomings of our leaders, and so much more that contributes to our stress and worry that it too can happen to us.
With instant access to information, we hear of every little thing that plagues the Earth. Since the fall, the effects of sin have been evident in humanity. It seems that things are potentially getting worse and more dangerous, with humanity heading on a wrecking course towards Armageddon.
However! Did you know that we are actually living in the safest, most peaceful time in the history of humankind? By taking a look at this link here, you can see data that shows the risk of violence is less now than ever before. Personally, I believe that some of the reason we hear about everything is that there is so little to report on.
If there is one major shooting in your city a week, that can be news. When it’s 10-30? That’s just too much to cover and we grow deaf to it. News stations ultimately make money based on viewers, and tragedy, unfortunately, gets our attention. Go in some freedom, however, knowing that things are actually getting better in a lot of areas!
A Christian Response
From a Christian faith perspective, then, what should our response be? The Church, Christianity, individual spirituality and the Holy Spirit all affect our propensity for anxiety and the potential for a nervous breakdown. Our faith has the power to help us cope with our anxiety. We can lean on God and trust in him to take care of us.
Our religion, however, has the power to contribute to our anxiety as well. When legalism and perfectionism reign supreme over faith, we begin to become filled with stress and anxiety. Trying to look like we have it all together for fear of judgment, conversely, will lead to us falling apart and losing it entirely.
It is normal to feel outside of the church cliques and the new “spiritual elite.” We see the beautiful couple with two perfect children leading worship every Sunday, for example. We compare ourselves to unnecessary standards and ultimately it wears on our self esteem and we lose focus on God himself. Rather, know that God is the Prince of Peace and from him, we can find strength and security.
What to Do About Nervous Breakdowns
So what can we do, then, about all these nervous breakdowns? I think some of it starts with perspective. As I stated before, so much of our anxieties and insecurities stem from social pressures and how we believe we are perceived.
Take a step back and inventory what is important in your life. Are you spending your energy focusing on these things? Time with loved ones, getting out in nature, enjoying your health – these should occupy more of the mental capacity we have. Most importantly, are you focused on your own spiritual development? This won’t be a cure all for anxiety, but leaning into your faith is a good way to help ground yourself and get perspective on what is important.
However, just as God gave us doctors to heal our bodies, he has given us therapists and counselors to heal our minds. For many, it becomes too much to handle on their own, and that is okay! When the breakdown does come, when the cup overflows, know that there are supports which can help you weather these storms of life.
Talking to a therapist can help you make sense of the anxiety you’re feeling and help to come up with coping skills. To use the metaphor of the cup I used earlier, therapists can do two things: help you take some out of your cup and help you to bring up the walls of your cup so that you have more capacity to handle stress.
When you are maxed out, even a little thing will cause you to overflow, so working with a therapist can help you to prioritize and come up with ways to cope with the stressors in your life. Some things will be quick fixes to relieve small stresses that add up, others will take a long time to get a hold of.
The good news is this: you don’t have to figure it out alone. Start today, reach out to a therapist and take control of your life so you don’t have to have breakdowns as often anymore!
“Stressed Out”, Courtesy of Kat Jayne, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “The Nectar of Life”, Courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Social Media”, Courtesy of Adrianna Calvo, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Coffee Chat”, Courtesy of Rawpixel.com, Pexels.com, CC0 License