Meltdowns: How to Get Back on Track

By Sarah Earles, MS, LPC, NCC | January 05, 2024

Meltdowns. Everybody has them. The tasks get overwhelming. The stimulation gets overwhelming. The thoughts and/or emotions get overwhelming, and the person just cannot cope. The person might cry. They might get angry. They might say or do mean things. A meltdown does not give a person permission to hurt self or others, but it does represent activation or collapse of the nervous system. Recovering after a meltdown requires getting the body, brain, and spirit back online, both for the person and for the people around them.

Numerous authors have documented that the body absorbs trauma. (Burk & Lipsky, 2007; Nagoski & Nagoski, 2019; van der Kolk, 2015). When meltdowns happen, a trauma-like response of fight/flight/freeze happens, disconnecting body and brain. To recover, the body needs to reconnect. One way to reconnect is through deep breathing (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). Another avenue can be through movement (Tremaine, 2020). Amanda Diekman suggests doing something that alerts the senses, like drinking cold ice water (Gobbel, 2023). Then she suggests something releasing, like jumping followed by regulation… for example through the rhythmic activities of chewing gum or rocking. Other people use aromatherapy (Our Roots, n.d.). The goal is to ground the body and bring the body back into awareness of the current moment.

Once the body is grounded, the person can begin to think about what happened. This takes time, however, as it can take up to 20 minutes to metabolize stress hormones (Homrich, 2022). Once down, however, the person may want to begin repairing any relationships that were damaged during the meltdown (George, n.d.). They may need to reset rooms or other environments. They may wish to compose a gratitude list, or write in a journal (Braithwaite, 2020). All of these can help the brain process what happened.

Finally, the person needs to re-engage their spirit. This may look like prayer, quiet contemplation, or affirmation (Gobbel, 2023; Integris Health, 2022; Tremaine, 2020). It could include an act of creativity or doing something productive (Braithwaite, 2020;Tremaine 2020). It reassures the person that he or she has what it takes to face life ahead.

Meltdowns are difficult, difficult for those who experience them, and for those who observe them. Both parties need a reset afterward. Getting the body, brain, and spirit back online can take time and work, but it can be done. Making a post-meltdown plan, before it is needed, should help with this.

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Meltdowns. Everybody has them. The tasks get overwhelming. The stimulation gets overwhelming. The thoughts and/or emotions get overwhelming, and the person just cannot cope. The person might cry. They might get angry. They might say or do mean things. A meltdown does not give a person permission to hurt self or others, but it does represent activation or collapse of the nervous system. Recovering after a meltdown requires getting the body, brain, and spirit back online, both for the person and for the people around them.

Numerous authors have documented that the body absorbs trauma. (Burk & Lipsky, 2007; Nagoski & Nagoski, 2019; van der Kolk, 2015). When meltdowns happen, a trauma-like response of fight/flight/freeze happens, disconnecting body and brain. To recover, the body needs to reconnect. One way to reconnect is through deep breathing (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). Another avenue can be through movement (Tremaine, 2020). Amanda Diekman suggests doing something that alerts the senses, like drinking cold ice water (Gobbel, 2023). Then she suggests something releasing, like jumping followed by regulation… for example through the rhythmic activities of chewing gum or rocking. Other people use aromatherapy (Our Roots, n.d.). The goal is to ground the body and bring the body back into awareness of the current moment.

Once the body is grounded, the person can begin to think about what happened. This takes time, however, as it can take up to 20 minutes to metabolize stress hormones (Homrich, 2022). Once down, however, the person may want to begin repairing any relationships that were damaged during the meltdown (George, n.d.). They may need to reset rooms or other environments. They may wish to compose a gratitude list, or write in a journal (Braithwaite, 2020). All of these can help the brain process what happened.

Finally, the person needs to re-engage their spirit. This may look like prayer, quiet contemplation, or affirmation (Gobbel, 2023; Integris Health, 2022; Tremaine, 2020). It could include an act of creativity or doing something productive (Braithwaite, 2020;Tremaine 2020). It reassures the person that he or she has what it takes to face life ahead.

Meltdowns are difficult, difficult for those who experience them, and for those who observe them. Both parties need a reset afterward. Getting the body, brain, and spirit back online can take time and work, but it can be done. Making a post-meltdown plan, before it is needed, should help with this.

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References

Braithwaite, P. (2020, April 27). 18 low-lift things that might actually make you feel better right now. Self. https://www.self.com/story/ways-to-feel-better-right-now

Burk, C., *& van Dernoot Lipsky, L. (2007). Trauma stewardship. Berret-Koehler Publishers.

George, K. (n.d.). The vital steps to take AFTER your child has a meltdown that you’re probably not doing. Autistic mama. https://autisticmama.com/the-vital-steps-to-take-after-child-meltdown/

Gobbel, R. (Host). (2023, July 18). Exploring low demand parenting: Shifting power dynamics and nurturing trust (No. 142). In The baffling behaviors show. https://robyngobbel.com/lowdemand/

Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, September 1). Tips to defuse a meltdown. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/tips-to-defuse-a-meltdown

Homrick, J. (2022, April 26). Mental health Monday: Recovering from an emotional meltdown. Clearpath counseling network. https://clearpathcounseling.org/2022/04/mental-health-monday-recovering-from-an-emotional-meltdown/

Integris Health. (2022, September 22). 11 ways to feel better every day. https://integrisok.com/resources/on-your-health/2022/september/11-ways-to-feel-better-every-day

Nagoski, E., * Nagoski, A. (2019). Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. Ballantine Books.

Our Roots. (n.d.) PTSD grounding techniques. https://www.ourrootscic.com/ptsd-grounding-techniques/

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Publishing Group.

Tremaine, L. (Host). (2020, January 7). 10 ways to feel better (No. 47). [Audio podcast episode]. In 10 things to tell you. https://www.10thingstotellyou.com/podcast/47

References

Braithwaite, P. (2020, April 27). 18 low-lift things that might actually make you feel better right now. Self. https://www.self.com/story/ways-to-feel-better-right-now

Burk, C., *& van Dernoot Lipsky, L. (2007). Trauma stewardship. Berret-Koehler Publishers.

George, K. (n.d.). The vital steps to take AFTER your child has a meltdown that you’re probably not doing. Autistic mama. https://autisticmama.com/the-vital-steps-to-take-after-child-meltdown/

Gobbel, R. (Host). (2023, July 18). Exploring low demand parenting: Shifting power dynamics and nurturing trust (No. 142). In The baffling behaviors show. https://robyngobbel.com/lowdemand/

Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, September 1). Tips to defuse a meltdown. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/tips-to-defuse-a-meltdown

Homrick, J. (2022, April 26). Mental health Monday: Recovering from an emotional meltdown. Clearpath counseling network. https://clearpathcounseling.org/2022/04/ mental-health-monday-recovering-from-an-emotional-meltdown/

Integris Health. (2022, September 22). 11 ways to feel better every day. https://integrisok.com/resources/on-your-health/2022/september/11-ways-to-feel-better-every-day

Nagoski, E., * Nagoski, A. (2019). Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. Ballantine Books.

Our Roots. (n.d.) PTSD grounding techniques. https://www.ourrootscic.com/ptsd-grounding-techniques/

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Publishing Group.

Tremaine, L. (Host). (2020, January 7). 10 ways to feel better (No. 47). [Audio podcast episode]. In 10 things to tell you. https://www.10thingstotellyou.com/ podcast/47