A meltdown is a reaction to feeling overwhelmed. This may happen when someone is sensitive to sounds or sights and goes into what is called sensory overload. Sensory overload, as defined by Dillon Brown, Ph.D., happens when you’re getting more input from your five senses than your brain can sort through and process. When you recognize that someone you know or yourself is on the verge of an emotional meltdown there are some steps that can diffuse it.
Methods to Defuse a Meltdown
Know your triggers
When we are overwhelmed by something, there are usually a few triggers that help others to know that we are starting to get overwhelmed. Abby Altman, an associate psychologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital says before and during intense reactive moments, we tend to use a lot of “I feel” language. These “I feel” statements are usually a sign of our current state of mind, not an actual statement to let others know of how we feel. If we are able to identify these “I feel” statements, we are better able to stop a meltdown before it starts.
Altman recommends using the ABCDE method:
A: Attention. When you feel distressed, stop what you’re doing and pay attention to your inner dialogue. What is your mind telling you?
B: Belief. Think about what you believe has happened. Automatically believing your thoughts may not give you an accurate picture of the situation at hand.
C: Challenge. Broaden your focus by challenging your thoughts. Are they facts or opinion? What is the bigger picture? What might you think if you were feeling calmer?
D: Discount. Acknowledge that your emotions have been dominating your thinking and that those emotions and associated sensations will eventually end. Let the unhelpful thoughts go.
E: Explore the options. Instead of engaging in less helpful behaviors because of this feeling, what else can you do?
Focus on a relaxation response
When we feel overwhelmed, our heart may start to beat faster and we may feel a rush. This is due to the fight or flight response that is triggered when we go into overdrive. Altman suggests locating the trigger and finding a relaxation response to help combat those feelings. She advises people to focus on breathing through the stomach and breathing gently while following the four-six breathing technique, which is shown below, provided by PopSugar.
How to Do the 4-6 Breathing Technique
- Start in a comfortable seated position. Be sure to sit upright, keeping your spine tall.
- Inhale through your nose for four counts, letting your chest and belly expand.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth for six seconds.
- Repeat for 10 minutes (or your preferred period of time).
Talk to your primary care doctor if you experience meltdowns on a frequent and occasional basis. Since stress is a popular trigger, they may be able to prescribe some medicine or give you other techniques to calm yourself down in the future.
Helping Someone Else with a Meltdown?
If you yourself are not experiencing the meltdown, but are helping someone who is, here are some tips on how to manage the situation:
- Don’t problem-solve or encourage the person to calm down.
- Altman recommends using words and phrases that validate the person and their feelings.
- Ask the person questions about what happened after they have calmed down. This can help them to reflect and identify the trigger for future meltdowns.
- Remind the person that they are not alone and they have conquered this before.