Tips to defuse a meltdown

Shifting your thinking and practicing deep breathing can help when you're stuck in an intense emotional moment.

Published: September, 2020

At some point, we've all gotten stuck in a "meltdown" moment — an overwhelming feeling of anger or stress that was difficult to shake off. "Feeling overwhelmed makes it harder to identify ways to get unstuck; the options seem limited, which can create a sense of hopelessness or despair. Additionally, negative memories may come to mind more readily, and we may filter out useful ways of viewing the situation at hand," says Abby Altman, an associate psychologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

But there are ways to shift your focus and break out of extremely emotional moments. Take note of the following tips so you can put them to work if a meltdown strikes.

Shift your thinking

Altman says before and during intense reactive moments, we tend to use a lot of "I feel" language. You might hear someone say "I feel like there's no hope" or "I feel like no one cares about me."

"Although we are saying 'I feel,' these statements are actually thoughts and not feelings," Altman points out. "By identifying the thoughts, we can identify patterns in our thinking and shift them."

Altman offers this ABCDE method to help.

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?

Shift your physical response

Feeling overwhelmed often triggers the fight-or-flight response — the body's reaction to perceived threats. The body releases a flood of stress hormones, causing a cascade of physiological changes to prepare you to jump out of the way of danger. For example, your heart beats faster, your breath quickens to get more oxygen into your blood, and your blood pressure rises to push that blood to your brain and muscles.

This reactive state can affect our ability to think clearly and work through the problem, Altman notes. "It becomes almost impossible to examine our thinking and to calm the reactions intended to keep us safe. It also makes it hard to imagine a calmer time and to think that our emotional state will eventually settle down."

Altman says one way to break this response is to take deep, slow, rhythmic breaths to calm the body and trigger the relaxation response — the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. "Focus on breathing through your stomach, so that your belly rises when you inhale and drops when you exhale," she advises. "Consider inhaling gently and slowly through your nose to a count of four, expanding your belly as you do. Hold that breath for a count of two before slowly exhaling through your mouth to a count of six."

Helping someone else

If you're with someone having a meltdown, you may be tempted to problem-solve or encourage the person to calm down. But it's more helpful to use these approaches:

  • Use words that reflect what you're noticing. "Saying to people that you can see they are angry or upset can validate the person's experience while helping them pause and take notice," says Abby Altman, an associate psychologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
  • Ask questions about what the person thinks has happened. "This often helps someone reflect on the experience," Altman says. "When some details are clarified, they may see more options and choices and become less blinded by a sense of despair."
  • Remind the person of previous success in difficult situations. "This will help affirm their ability to manage the current situation," Altman says.

Getting more help

If you experience frequent meltdowns, talk to your primary care doctor. Stress has a harmful impact on health: it can raise your blood sugar and blood pressure, and it can cause insomnia, anxiety, or depression. If an underlying cause is triggering stress, such as sleep deprivation, it's all the more important to seek medical care. The sooner you learn effective ways to cope, the sooner you'll feel better.

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