Sidestepping Meltdown

Sidestepping Meltdown

It’s curious that the day after I wrote about violence in meltdowns I felt myself approaching one. This is how I handled it.

It was Tuesday morning and I was feeling tired after a poor night’s sleep. That in itself is never a good thing because it heightens my sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as bright light, loud or high-pitched noise and touch. It puts me on edge: I become liable to jump at the slightest disturbance, balanced on the cusp between holding it together and going into overload.

Well, I was a mess. Couldn’t concentrate on anything: the slightest disturbance grated. The noise of the air conditioning, people’s voices, vibrations in the floor as they walked by all contributed to my discomfort and I could feel that I was becoming more and more tense.

And then an alarm went off! Loud and high-pitched. I felt myself sliding into meltdown, the anger building as I began to feel the urge to lash out…

..but I was aware of all this. I realized how close I was to a meltdown and that realization slammed the mental brakes on. In recognizing my state of distress I had subconsciously triggered my learned coping strategies. My focus shifted from the external stimuli that were overloading me to instead observe my own body: I was breathing too fast, I was very tense. I began to consciously relax, the tension easing and the anger ebbing as I did so. My breathing slowed to a more normal rate as a result of the meditative technique.

And the alarm stopped. Bliss! Comparative peace at last. Until the fire alarm test sounded a few minutes later, which caught me unawares despite happening at the same time every Tuesday morning for the past six years and more. I’m laughing at the irony in hindsight: I just got over one alarm and there was another! However this one didn’t cause me nearly as much distress because I was already in my coping mindset. Yes, it was painful to the senses and I couldn’t physically do anything while it was ringing, but I had successfully reduced my stress level from the first alarm and had the reserves to avoid a full overload.

A couple of minutes later it was all over. I went for a short walk to give myself a break and help complete the process of relaxation which helped somewhat. The tiredness though; that was exacerbated by the effort of will to drag myself back from the brink of meltdown. It wasn’t a very productive day after that: I got through and made a point of not setting my alarm that night. I knew I needed to sleep and recover enough to be able to function the next day and it’s better to be late in to work and productive than turn up on time with a mind like molasses in winter.

12 thoughts on “Sidestepping Meltdown

  1. That is pretty awesome! Recognising your own reactions and triggers that way, I mean. And being able to calm yourself down. Maybe descriptions like this will make people see that calming yourself down is a learned behaviour, a conscious effort, not something that happens automatically. And that means that if you want a child to be able to do that, you’ll have to teach them.

    (Also more awesomeness on letting yourself be late for work. I still haven’t found an employer who’s ok with that, unfortunately).


    1. It’s pretty damned exhausting! 😉 But I’m more than happy to accept awesome.

      I’m not sure how you’d go about teaching this unless it was as a combination of raising self-awareness and inner focus through meditation. I’m a bit wary of this sounding like it’s some New Age peace & love trip, but I’m just describing how I see it. Anyway there are parallels with yoga and that’s respectable enough. 🙂

      So it was exhausting but worth it to avoid a meltdown with all its associated traumatic effects. I can’t say I’ve been consistently successful with this kind of approach — I don’t always recognize the symptoms before I’m in meltdown. I’m still learning but the fact I’ve had some success is so encouraging. And not having a meltdown at work is such a big win!

      Speaking of the job, they’re refreshingly focused on the important things like getting the job done rather than what I dress like (not that I vary much apart from adding a jacket or coat in winter and occasionally a different hat) or what time I turn up (within reason: I’ll phone in if I’m going to be unusually late — such as 4 hours after this episode — and I finish later to compensate so it all works out). I get cut a lot of slack because I’m competent at what I do, and my bosses recognize that. 😀


      1. Yeah, I completely hear you on how exhausting it is. Just the amount of energy required to stay focused instead of letting it rip… and people tell us we shouldn’t bottle up our emotions. *rolls eyes* Those people have obviously never experienced a full meltdown. It’s good that you are aware of what you need, even if it’s not always perfect or consistent. (And I agree on the New Age-y thing but yoga has helped me develop my awareness of my body to a point where I at least don’t get hit out of the blue with things like “I’m hungry” or “I’m cold” so it can definitely be useful).


        1. I think my problem with a lot of New Age thinking is that while there might be something useful in there it tends to get obscured by a bunch of mystical nonsense. I’m afraid I used to include disciplines like yoga in with that before I learned enough about them, but at least I’m open to changing my opinions in the face of evidence.

          I do find meditation techniques to be very useful, things like exercises where I build and manipulate images in my mind, and also where I focus on a single aspect of my body such as breathing or heartbeat.


          1. Mysticism and dogma. Urghhhh. It’s why I also adapt yoga and meditation to my own special needs, instead of following instructions. I simply can’t have my eyes closed when my yoga teacher is talking, because her voice becomes so loud it bounces off the inside of my skull. So I keep my eyes open to have a second type of sensory input to moderate the first. It works for me. Screw “you’re supposed to close your eyes.”


            1. I find closing my eyes affects my balance: I rely on visual input to a degree to keep my vestibular sense calibrated, as I find it drifts off over time and I start to feel like I’m spinning or falling (vertigo), which is not a pleasant sensation.

              It might sound strange but I keep my eyes open when I’m visualizing things. I “see” whatever I’m imagining instead of what my eyes are picking up although I still register movement, flashes of light and other things in my field of vision that attract attention. I’m aware that my eyes are seeing but it’s very much in the background.


          2. “I’m not sure how you’d go about teaching this unless it was as a combination of raising self-awareness and inner focus through meditation.”

            This. I think the reason I’ve been able to even decrease the number of meltdowns I get is because I turned into my own armchair psychologist and started analyzing myself for years (still do every now and then). Whenever I start feeling irritable or annoyed, I’ll start asking myself, “Why?” and realize that something I’m doing at the moment is frustrating me even though I don’t know why it’s frustrating…

            And I’ll stop doing it until later, when I’m feeling calmer.

            Crisis averted!!



            1. It’s great that you have had success recognizing the lead up to your meltdowns and are able to work around the problems. I hope to continue to succeed with this approach myself. Thank you for sharing your experience.


            2. This is why I usually get a bit angry when someone tells me to “stop overanalysing everything”. Erm, no. My analysis helps me figure out problem areas. YOU stop treating analysis as a bad or abnormal thing. Thanks.


  2. That was a really helpful description of how you were able to use coping strategies to sidestep a meltdown, thanks for this.

    For me, an approaching meltdown feels like a surge of frustration and panic, a fight-or-flight response. Whenever possible, I flee. Sometimes that means physically distancing myself from the situation and going to another room or a quiet place, sometimes it means mentally and emotionally distancing myself by going into my own mind and talking myself through my emotions. A common bit of parenting advice is for parents to take a time-out when their kids are pushing their buttons. I’ve found this has been really helpful to me in general. Once I’m calm, things don’t seem so bad.


    1. Thank you. Yes, I find that mental or physical distance is the key: it’s flight of one form or another. It’s possible to cope if you can just get a bit of calm so that you can think more clearly instead of simply reacting.


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