Stress is the friction that allows our minds and bodies to accomplish great things, but too much stress can lead to some serious problems down the road. On such problem is "nervous exhaustion," also called a "nervous breakdown," which can occur if someone subjects himself to too much stress for too long. Knowing the symptoms of nervous exhaustion is an important component in recovering and dealing with future stress in a more constructive manner. As with any medical condition, it is important to seek appropriate medical advice if you suspect you or someone you love or know is on the verge, or has already experienced, nervous exhaustion.
Stress is a chemical response to perceived danger; it evolved in primitive man as a method to kick the body into high gear in order to solve a life-or-death situation, hence its nickname the "fight-or-flight" response. Modern man may no longer be confronted with dangerous animals or constant struggles to survive, but the brain has no way to distinguish between being chased by a bear and dealing with a bear market. Stress causes adrenalin to be released from glands located on the top of the kidneys, but there is only so much adrenalin that can be produced by these glands. When stress continues for a long period of time, the body runs out of adrenalin, but still has the stress, which can cause the person to enter what scientists call the "exhaustion phase of general adaptation syndrome" but what many laymen call "nervous breakdown" or "nervous exhaustion."
One of the ways that nervous exhaustion manifests itself is in an alteration of your sleep cycle, usually dramatically (within the span of a day or two) and typically lasting for a long period of time. Insomnia and restless sleep are signs of nervous exhaustion. Often problems, worries, anxieties and plans keep tumbling through the person's mind, making it difficult or impossible to shut off, thus causing insomnia or restless sleep.
Lack of sleep, constant exposure to adrenalin, and stress can exacerbate emotional and mental responses. It is not uncommon for those suffering from nervous exhaustion to have an inability to concentrate, mood swings, irritability and to feel depressed (even suicidal). These symptoms are caused by the sudden change in the hormones bathing the brain, thus altering perception and response in the person.
Constant exposure to stress hormones can also cause irregularities in the digestive system. Irritable bowels (that is, a digestive tract sensitive to spices or fats) and upset stomachs (with or without ingesting food) are common signs of nervous exhaustion. This sometimes translates into nutritional deficiencies that can exacerbate the other symptoms of nervous exhaustion.
Prevention can be difficult if you work in a high-stress position or are experiencing a life-altering or momentous event (wedding, divorce, purchasing a house, etc.), but in general limiting your exposure to stressful situations can alleviate the symptoms. By "taking a break" from the stressful position or event, you are giving your body time to cool down and break the cycle of stimulus-response, which may help alleviate the symptoms. Also, regular exercise, when combined with proper nutrition, can give the body a path to "vent" the pent-up energy caused by general adaptation syndrome (stress). Also helpful are psychotherapy or counselling sessions wherein you may discuss the problems or anxieties that are causing the underlying stress. In some extreme cases, medications may be in order, typically used in conjunction with counselling, exercise and/or vacation periods.