Making the Most of Your Nervous Breakdown

12 Feb

Stop right now and ask yourself this question: When was the last time I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown? If you’re like a lot of people I know, it was probably yesterday. Or today. Or, if you have kids, maybe five minutes ago. Now ask yourself this: how terrible would it be if it actually happened?

I’m a big believer in the saving power of breakdowns. Because, as I explain in the first two chapters of my forthcoming book, having one in my mid-20s permanently altered my life for the better. I was reminded of this a few days ago when I read a revealing profile of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. He, too, knows what it’s like to fall apart. It happened during my senior year at Duke.  We came back to campus after Christmas break to find that our genius coach, the man who took his team to the Final Four nearly every year, was suddenly, inexplicably out of commission for the rest of the season. His team marched on without him toward disaster, experiencing its only losing season in the past 30 years.  

We were all baffled then, and explanations weren’t forthcoming. But now we know that life overwhelmed Coach K – back surgery that he tried to bounce back from too quickly, the constant pressure of running a high-profile team, the travel, the family commitments, all of the people who wanted a piece of him and all of the things he felt he had to control.  It took a team of four doctors and his wife to help him change. Seventeen years later, he’s the winningest coach in the history of men’s college basketball, head of an Olympic gold medal team, civic leader, devoted family man and Catholic. He credits his ordeal that year with forcing him to overhaul his entire approach to life. Thirteen years ago, my own struggles with an anxiety disorder forced me to do the same thing. Here’s a few things I learned along the way:

Understand that a breakdown can be your friend. The constant specter of possibly falling apart can be worse than actually letting it happen. We fear losing control, as if we were really in control anyway. We expect something dreadful, as if admitting to a crisis will cause us to spontaneously combust. And, besides, who has time for a breakdown?  Alternatively, we can acknowledge the truth. There’s too much going on. My body and mind are clearly telling me that I can’t handle it. There’s no point in pretending anymore that I can. I need to let people help me. Admitting that to yourself and accepting that your life needs to change – without knowing right away what changes to make and how to make them and how all of this will feel moment to moment – is the really hard part.

Which brings us to point two: try to understand what the breakdown means. It’s tempting to wonder, what did I do to deserve this? And long for happier times in the past. Or to think, hmm, maybe this will all just kind of resolve itself, like a stomach bug. And not do anything about it. Instead, ask yourself: How did I get to this point? That’s a painful question, and it elicits painful answers that we’d rather not think about. And it’s the things we’d rather not think about that lead to the breakdown in the first place. My freshman year of college, I slipped into a deep funk for several months. I didn’t take any proactive steps to deal with it. Instead, I toughed it out and waited for things to get better on their own. They did for a while. But seven years later, the same problems came back – this time with much greater force. And then I finally had to explore what was driving me into the ground – a terrible diet, lack of exercise, a chronic inability to grasp or express my feelings, a tendency to let everyone else define success for me. Is anything driving you into the ground?

If you can answer that, then you’re ready for step three: make concrete changes that address the problems. What’s the point of going through all the trauma of the breakdown if you’re not going to do something good with it?  There was no way I was going back to the way I’d felt before. So I gave up caffeine, cut way back on junk food, started running, went back to church, even changed jobs. These weren’t short-term changes either; I committed to them over the long haul. Because I was trying to change a handful of key things instead of 20 random ones, it became possible to make them stick. More than a dozen years later, like Coach K, I’m a lot happier, way more productive and much better grounded.

If you ever find yourself on the verge of a breakdown, ask yourself: How can I turn it to my advantage? It’s a simple question that’s bound to yield messy reactions. But the answers you need are in there somewhere.

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6 Responses to “Making the Most of Your Nervous Breakdown”

  1. Craig February 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    Great column (except for the fawning, endless references to Coach K). Reading it has caused ME to have a nervous breakdown.

    • admin February 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

      Craig — when Roy Williams has a breakdown, which I’m sure won’t be too long from now, I’ll be happy to write about that, too.

  2. Katie February 13, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

    Nice post! Feels more empowering viewing anxiety as a teacher rather than something to avoid or a cross to bear…

    • admin February 14, 2012 at 1:32 am #

      Hi Katie — thanks! Yes, the moment that I finally saw anxiety as a friend and teacher instead of an enemy — and this awareness actually came upon me quite suddenly one day — was probably the key turning point of my life. It can teach us a tremendous amount if we let it.

  3. Justin Mazza February 15, 2012 at 2:00 am #

    Hi Stephen,
    Being a typical type “A” person I have flirted with breakdowns many times. I had to learn to balance my life out and learn to slow down and enjoy it.

    The more we get done the more things replace it to get done. I remember when Coach K was out for the season. He is without a doubt the best coach of all time.

    • admin February 15, 2012 at 2:51 am #

      Hey Justin — thanks for checking in. Sounds like you know exactly what I’m talking about. What kind of specific steps did you take to create balance and slow down?

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