Are You Experiencing a Melt Down?

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Noticing when you’re feeling overwhelmed is the first step toward stopping an emotional meltdown before it happens.

In the stressful and overstimulating world we live in, sometimes becoming so overwhelmed by your stress that it significantly affects your behavior (what we refer to here as a “meltdown”) may be an all-too-human occurrence.

For some people, a meltdown may look like crying uncontrollably. For others it may look like snapping at others or lashing out angrily. And for still others it may involve panicking or running away from a stressful situation.

Feeling embarrassed about a meltdown afterward is also human, particularly if it occurred in a public place. And there may be other repercussions, such as damaged relationships, if the meltdown included attacks on others.

The good news is that you can recover from a meltdown, and you can learn to manage the stressors in your life that threaten to push you over the edge, so that future meltdowns are less likely.

Common Triggers of Emotional Meltdowns

The particulars of an emotional meltdown are unique to the individual, but certain situations raise the likelihood of a meltdown occurring in many if not most people.

Are you overtired? Getting too little sleep, particularly if it’s night after night, can wear down your ability to manage your emotions and respond to stressors.

Are you hungry? Even if you consume enough calories overall, going too long between meals may result in a blood sugar level that’s low enough to cause spaciness, light-headedness, and a reduced ability to deal with stressors.

Have you taken on too much? Taking on too many responsibilities at once — or even agreeing to too many social activities — is a surefire recipe for feeling overwhelmed.

Are you in the middle of a life transition?Getting or losing a job, starting or ending a relationship, moving to a new home, getting married, having a baby, graduating college, and many other normal life transitions make you more emotionally vulnerable.

Have you let relationship stresses build up? The closer the relationship, the more important it is to address differences as they arise. Allowing conflicts to fester typically makes them more stressful, not less.

If you’re prone to meltdowns, think about what tends to lead up to them or to set them off. Some may be easily resolved, such as being sure to eat more frequently. Others may take more work, such as learning better communication skills.

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Nipping a Meltdown in the Bud

You can’t stop difficult situations from occurring, but you can change how you respond to them. The next time you start feeling the signs of acute stress — your face getting hot, hands getting cold, breathing getting shallow — pay attention to how you feel and, unless you’re being called upon to save someone’s life, take steps to calm yourself before attempting to respond to what’s happening. Doing the following may help:

  • Take a deep breath, or a few deep breaths.
  • Count to 10.
  • Consider excusing yourself from the room to take time to calm down.

Most problems don’t need to be solved in an instant, even if you or someone else wishes they could be. If you need a minute or two to absorb bad news or an upsetting communication, then take that minute or two, then revisit the issue when you feel calmer.

In the Aftermath of a Meltdown

How do you feel after you’ve had a meltdown? Do you feel embarrassed or ashamed of your behavior or of letting others know how you feel? Do you feel relieved that you’ve expressed your feelings or justified for letting them out? Are you afraid or anxious about possible repercussions for your outburst?

While most people would rather forget a meltdown as quickly as possible, it can be a learning experience if you let it.

For example, if you see that you tend to melt down when you’re trying to do too much at once, you can use that information in a positive way by learning to manage your time better or learning to say “no” more often.

If you feel embarrassed about revealing your emotions in public, you might examine how you feel about your feelings. Why isn’t it okay for you to be angry, or to be sad, or to need something from someone else? Feeling ashamed about your emotions often results from cultural or parental messages — for example, that “men don’t cry” or “’nice’ women don’t get angry” — and it can get in the way of establishing good personal and professional relationships. For some people, reducing the hold of such messages requires help from a mental health professional.

And what if you feel relieved after a meltdown? Sometimes expressing your feelings — even in the form of a meltdown — can relieve stress if you’ve been holding your emotions in check. But wouldn’t it be better to learn to express your feelings before you got to the point of dissolving in tears or lashing out at others? It’s not easy, but it is possible to learn to communicate your feelings in a way that allows you to feel more connected with others and enables them to feel more connected to you.

Do You Need to Apologize After a Meltdown?

You never need to apologize for your feelings, but you may need to apologize for your behavior or for the way you expressed your feelings.

If your meltdown involved yelling at other people, being verbally or physically abusive, or destroying someone else’s property, then you should apologize — and come up with a plan to manage your emotions differently the next time you’re upset or stressed.

If your meltdown occurred at work, it’s appropriate to apologize to anyone you may have disrupted or offended. But keep it brief, and focus your energy on understanding what happened and how you can prevent further workplace meltdowns.

Preventing Future Meltdowns by Reducing the Stress in Your Life

The better you get at nipping meltdowns in the bud, the less likely you are to ever have another one. But why not take steps to reduce the negative stress in your life so you don’t even come close to having a meltdown? Here are some ideas to get you started:

Develop a stress-reduction plan. A stress-reduction plan doesn’t have to include meditating — although it can — but it does generally involve regularly taking time for yourself to do something that’s healthful and relaxing, such as exercising, practicing breathing techniques, or engaging in creative activities, such as singing or making art. It may also include eliminating or reducing sources of stress in your life, such as excessive screen time, activities you don’t enjoy or don’t have time for, and internal pressure to accomplish more than is reasonable. Thinking about and writing down an actual plan for reducing stressmakes it more likely you’ll take the necessary actions to carry it out.

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Listen to your body. Tight muscles, headaches, and other types of pain and discomfort are telling you something. Rather than taking a pain killer and pushing ahead with what you’re doing, take a step back and observe what’s making you tense.

Don’t ignore your feelings. Sweeping your feelings under a rug doesn’t make them go away. Acknowledging how you feel, on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to look at what is causing those feelings and to take action, even if it’s just discussing your feelings with another person.

Find someone to talk to. When something upsetting happens, or you feel chronic stress building up in your life, simply talking about it with someone who can listen nonjudgmentally can have a therapeutic effect. Sometimes a therapist is the best person to talk to about difficult subjects, but a friend or other trusted acquaintance may also be able to fill this role.

Spend more time in nature. Being in a natural environment has been shown to have calming effects. You don’t have to be active in that environment, necessarily. You can just observe the sights and sounds of nature, such as the wind blowing, water running, and birds and insects making their natural noises. 

Make time for fun and play. Everyone needs to recharge from time to time by doing things they enjoy. 

Steer clear of people who are hurtful and unkind. You’re not obliged to socialize with people who don’t treat you with care and respect, even if they’re related to you. Minimize the time you spend with people whose company you don’t enjoy, and seek out more time with those you do.

Get help if you need it. There’s a lot you can do on your own to lower your stress level and your risk of having another meltdown. But if self-help measures aren’t providing the relief you need, consider seeing a professional for help. For depression, anxiety, or relationship problems, a psychotherapist — such as a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker — may be your best bet. For help with time management or goal-setting, a life coach or health coach may be a good option.

Whatever type of professional you choose to see, check out that person’s credentials, and be as clear as you can be about the type of help you’re seeking.

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