We seem to be hearing about it a lot these days. Kony 2012 film creator Jason Russell strips naked on a San Diego street corner. He paces, apparently agitated, and begins beating his fists on the sidewalk. A JetBlue pilot exits the cockpit mid-flight and goes into a lengthy rant. He talks about Iraq and Afghanistan and at one point claims there is a bomb on the plane. He then starts banging on the cockpit door and has to be physically subdued by a group of passengers.
These are seemingly "normal" people, probably dealing with the same types of daily stressors we all face. They, like us, are going about the business of living life, with all the ups and downs that come with it...
Until something happens. They have a meltdown. They reach their breaking point; they snap. They crack up, have a nervous breakdown, fall apart, come unglued, etc. None of these are actual diagnoses, but the terms are part of our shared vernacular nonetheless. They all refer to the collapse of mental and emotional strength in the face of overwhelming stress. They all attempt to describe what happens when a person's stress reaches the point at which it overwhelms his ability to cope. This can be due to the accumulation of stress over time; it can also occur in response to a single traumatic event.
So what happens when a person reaches his breaking point? While no two people are the same, I believe it is possible to classify the majority of possible experiences into a few broad categories.
Psychosis: When a person becomes psychotic, his or her sense of reality becomes distorted. He may see or hear things that aren't really there (hallucinations). He may hold firm to beliefs that are inconsistent with what is actually taking place (delusions). His thoughts are often disorganized, making it difficult to think clearly or to make sense of his experiences. This is apparently what happened to Jason Russell.
Suicide: This refers not only to committing suicide but also to attempting or even seriously contemplating it. A person seeks to end his own life when he sees no other way to cope with reality as it exists. He reaches a point where he believes he has no other options.
Inability to function at the level required to complete activities necessary for survival: When a person reaches this point, he may not be able to bring himself to get out of bed in the morning. Instead of going to work or to school (or instead of getting his kids off to school or doing whatever it is he is responsible for doing in the morning), he simply stays in bed. He doesn't bother getting up to eat or to shower. He isolates himself from his friends and family. He lacks the energy and/or motivation to continue participating in life.
Extreme/erratic behaviors: Often the behavior in question is an impulsive one. For example, a person's boss criticizes him. Overwhelmed by a multitude of stressors, he simply snaps. He physically attacks his boss and has to be restrained by several coworkers. The behavior of the aforementioned JetBlue pilot also falls into this category. Sometimes the behavior is slightly less extreme but is completely out of character and not something the person would likely do under "normal" circumstances. For example, I once knew someone who had graduated college a few months earlier and was feeling overwhelmed by the stress of her first "real" job. She was a very responsible and conscientious person by nature. She was scheduled to work one evening but, when the time came, she just could not bring herself to go. Instead, she got in her car and just started driving. She ended up several hundred miles away, in a neighboring state. Her family became worried when her supervisor called to ask why she hadn't come to work. She essentially "ran away" from life, leaving behind everyone and everything.
Could this happen to anybody? Do we all have a breaking point? I've often wondered about this, particularly in the case of psychosis. Is it possible that any one of us could break with reality and become psychotic if faced with overwhelming trauma or stress? I honestly don't know. I am, however, fairly certain that we all have some sort of "breaking point." Naturally, we all vary in our ability to cope with stress; some people are able to tolerate higher levels than others. Still, nobody's ability to cope is unlimited; we all have limits to what we can endure. It is important for us to remember that we cannot allow stress to accumulate unattended and expect to remain unaffected by it. We significantly decrease the likelihood that we will ever reach our "breaking point" by coping with individual stressors as they arise and by making self care a priority.