Oprah: Why Did She Almost Have A Nervous Breakdown?

Oprah posing during Butler press event

Oprah Winfrey recently admitted to nearly having a nervous breakdown. But why? And what lessons can we all learn from this?

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What was the problem?

While filming Lee Daniels’ The Butler last year, Oprah was in the midst of trying to revitalize her “struggling” TV channel, OWN. It wasn’t until she interviewed Kony 2012 director Jason Russell, who had recently suffered a very dramatic breakdown). She realized that she herself was in danger after listening to Jason describe his symptoms, many of which she was experiencing herself.

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“In the beginning, it was just sort of speeding and a kind of numbness and going from one thing to the next thing to the next thing,” Oprah says. “I remember thinkking that if I don’t calm down I’m gonna be in serious trouble. I remember closing my eyes in between each page because looking at the page and the words at the same time was too much stimulation for my brain.”

Thankfully, Oprah took several steps back from her multiple projects and allowed herself to relax.

What does it mean to have a nervous breakdown?

A nervous breakdown is not a clinical term, but can apply to many different situations in which someone begins to exhibit symptoms of different mental illnesses, or heavy emotional stress. The term nervous breakdown dates from a much older diagnosis of particularly women who suddenly became unable to function in their lives. Usually first symptoms are ignored, prompting what is now known as a psychotic break from reality, or a psychotic episode. This may show up in the form of an attempted suicide, or extreme behavior that requires hospitalization.

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Since many different illnesses can cause what many term a “nervous breakdown,” it is difficult to describe symptoms. Perhaps the greatest predictor of nervous breakdown is familial history of mental instability. Those who have family members with major depression, bipolar, anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia are more likely to be at risk for these mental illnesses. Undiagnosed illnesses in family members from the past may manifest in alcoholism or abusive behavior.

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Those undergoing high levels of stress, for example after the death of a parent, spouse, or child, or who have been through a messy divorce are more likely to have a “nervous breakdown” if they are predisposed toward certain mental illnesses. As well, even those who do not have a predisposition toward mental illness can have a nervous breakdown if they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can manifest years after a single traumatic event, and may be triggered by a situation that seems similar. With those who have undergone trauma, early counseling can help prevent a nervous breakdown.

Thus symptoms may differ for describing a nervous breakdown, but one can look for the following behaviors as possible symptoms that might precipitate a psychotic episode:

  • Disinterest in work or family life
  • Disinterest in social life
  • Alienation from previously close friends and family
  • Sleep disruption or much longer periods of sleep
  • Significant changes in appetite, such as eating too little or too much
  • Paranoid thoughts, such as the thought people are trying to harm you
  • Thoughts of grandeur or invincibility
  • Feelings of persistent anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Hearing voices
  • Seeing people who are not there
  • Thoughts of dying or a wish to die
  • Exhibiting strong or violent anger
  • Having flashbacks to a prior traumatic event
  • Increasing dependence on alcohol or drugs
  • Inability to pursue a normal life

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The above list is only a few of the possible symptoms associated with what might become a nervous breakdown or psychotic break. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, you should immediately consult your doctor or a mental health professional. All people, at one point or another, may experience extreme emotional changes due to grief or to life changes like losing a job. These are good times to get the assistance of a therapist, as talk therapy can be tremendously helpful in dealing with significant emotional overload.