Let’s face it, we live in a stressful and overstimulating world, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed to the point of losing control of your emotions and having a meltdown. Why does this happen? Can we prevent them? What do we do if we have one?
A meltdown is a reaction to feeling overwhelmed and is not something you can control. Often, a meltdown can seem to “come out of nowhere” and to an outsider, it can seem as though you’ve completely overreacted to something. But, in truth, many emotional outbursts are the result of long-present feelings that you have struggled to keep under control.
It’s important to remember that everyone has different triggers and many of us keep our emotions buried, until we no longer can. Meltdowns tend to occur when intense feelings can no longer be controlled and emerge in the form of yelling, crying, lashing out, fleeing, or shutting down.
The good news is, experts say that occasional meltdowns are completely normal (even if scary and/or uncomfortable), especially if your life is unpredictable or full of things you feel you can’t control, and are typically a sign that some of your personal and emotional needs are not being met.
While you can’t stop difficult situations from occurring, you can change how you respond to them. The next time you feel the signs of acute stress — your face getting hot, hands getting cold and tingly, 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.
Your brain has two parts: One is the big gray area that houses your sensory preceptors and is responsible for logical thinking and learning, and the other is a processing center deep inside your brain that houses your emotions and impulses. These two parts cannot function at the same time. For this reason, it’s extremely important to pause when you’re experiencing overwhelming emotions to give your brain a chance to switch out of the emotional area and into the section that controls logical thinking before you respond.
By activating one of your senses, you will switch into the part of your brain that is responsible for logical thinking, allowing you to detach from the difficult emotions you are experiencing.
You can do this by becoming aware of your body; wiggle your toes, touch your fingertips together, or rub your palms on your thighs. Mental health experts commonly use an exercise that activates each sense by noticing 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can smell, 2 things you can touch and 1 thing you can taste.
There are many breathing techniques to try, but just by focusing on your breath, you’ll naturally break the cycle of intense emotional feelings, giving yourself a chance to respond differently. Here is an easy breathing exercise to try:
It may seem counterintuitive to laugh when you’re having an emotional meltdown, but laughter has great short-term effects. Laughing causes physical changes to occur in your body, such as muscle relaxation, slower heart rate and lower blood pressure, and a release of endorphins from your brain. Sometimes in the moment, it’s hard to get past your anger, pride, or sadness and allow yourself to laugh, but if you can, the effect is instantaneous and rewarding.
While these techniques won’t reverse a difficult situation or remove the problem that triggered your strong emotional response, by pausing to activate your senses, breathe, or laugh, you offer yourself an opportunity to respond differently. And you may find yourself in the position to help someone who is melting down. These techniques are quick, easy, and can help someone break out of a moment of overwhelm.
Meltdowns can be embarrassing, especially if they happen in front of coworkers, or even strangers. A lot of people pride themselves on being able to keep their emotions in check, so a meltdown can be devastating. Or perhaps you feel relieved for releasing your emotions. No matter how you feel about it, having a meltdown can be a learning experience. By paying attention to your triggers, you can discover how to protect yourself from becoming overwhelmed in the future.
For example, you may notice that you tend to melt down when you’re trying to do too much and feel you can’t please everyone. You can use this information to focus on time management and practice saying “no”, so you don’t overbook yourself.
Or if you feel embarrassed about revealing your emotions in public, ask yourself why it isn’t okay for you to be emotional. Feeling ashamed about your emotions won’t help you handle them better in the future, and repressed emotions have been linked to chronic pain and disease.
What if you feel relieved after you melt down? Expressing your feelings — even in the form of a meltdown — can relieve stress, but it would be better to find ways to express your feelings before you get to the point of dissolving into tears or lashing out at others.
Now that you’ve examined the reason you had a meltdown, it’s important to remember that while you never need to apologize for your feelings, you may find that you need to apologize for your behavior or the way you have expressed your feelings. As with all apologies, keep it simple, look the person in the eye, and don’t make an excuse or try to explain your behavior. It is helpful to come up with a plan as to how you will manage your emotions differently the next time you’re upset or stressed.
Your family and friends want you to be emotionally healthy, so asking them for support will go a long way toward managing your stressors and avoiding meltdowns in the future. Ask someone to take a task off your already-full plate, or simply talk about your worries with someone who will listen nonjudgmentally.
It’s natural to have emotional outbursts every now and then when stress has piled up. But if you’re dealing with emotional pain or feel you’re stressed out all the time, you may want to consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
We all get overwhelmed sometimes. Shaming yourself or dwelling won’t help, but you can examine your emotional triggers so you can find ways to avoid them. Learning to deal with your emotions in healthy ways will enhance every relationship in your life and is a necessary part of enjoying and long and healthy life.