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Recently I was reading a March 2021 Atlantic Monthly article titled “Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown.The author, Jerry Useem, reported several intriguing facts about the origins and label ‘nervous breakdown.’  

He explains that the nervous breakdown first appeared in a 1901 medical treatise which suggested that a nervous breakdown is a “disease of the whole civilized world.” Dr. George Miller Beard proposed that each person has a “set amount of nerve force,” which could be depleted over time by exposure to the “stress of modern life.”

This article was striking to me as I consider how impactful liminal space can be. And, that we often arrive in our own liminal space as a result of life’s stressful circumstances. In its infancy, a nervous breakdown was an opportunity to take a pause, to seek respite to retreat from the demands of everyday living. Over the years, this acceptable pause has instead become something to be resisted or pushed underground. 

The nervous breakdown has been eroded in meaning and intent by both the pressures of productivity as well as modern medicine. 

Rather than seeing the beauty in taking an intentional pause, today, we might consider it to be something requiring a hospital stay, medication and a level of personal secrecy. 

Here’s the thing, in a post covid world, there remain waves of stress that have people reeling. In my work with those who are living their watershed moments I find people struggling with losses, pressures and current cultural stressors. And the need for rest, deep restorative rest is never more present. At the same time, our culture emphasizes productivity, muscling through and digging deeper for the energy to do more and be more. 

It is hard and lonely being amid significant life changes. 

While the pressure to perform is great, one’s own level of energy – the amount of nerve force one feels – may simply be tapped out. I remember liminal seasons where my personal energy felt so very thin. As if I did have a limited nerve force for handling life’s challenges. 

While I needed to carry on with my work schedule, I also needed to carve out time for rest and renewal. I needed to open to the possibility that this necessity was really something critical for me. I could choose to see the necessary rest as something sacred rather than a waste of time. 

I could be open to what might bring me more rest – more creativity – more openness. 

What liminal space or the early idea of a nervous breakdown offers is another lens with which to consider the importance of liminal space. We can reconsider liminal space. What if we considered the need for liminal space to be a sacred call. A time to notice what is most meaningful to our inner self. A time to consider new ideas, explore uncharted territory with curiosity instead of dread…a chance to recharge our own nerve force. 

What if we gave a nervous breakdown a new name? What would you call this opportunity for inner restoration? 


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