According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the formal definition of meltdown is a “disastrous situation” where a nuclear reactor core overheats and melts, with potential for widespread harm. It turns out nuclear reactor cores and humans both have meltdowns when overstimulated. For humans, a meltdown is an “emotional breakdown.” These breakdowns are loud, angry, scary, out of control, frustrating, and exhausting.
Pick up on triggers.
In an ideal world, we’d recognizing situations that jump start meltdowns and simply avoid them, but sometimes the cause for the breakdown can’t be avoided. The good news is that often, if caught early, the crisis can be averted.
That’s like having a cooling switch on your nuclear reactor core. You notice one day the core is getting warm, see it getting hotter by the second, and you act quickly. You click that cooling switch on. Instant cooling! It’s the same with picking up on triggers. The earlier you notice the meltdown and what’s causing it, the quicker it is to click that cooling switch on and calm things down.
It’s important you know the typical causes for your meltdowns because (1) you (or someone who cares about you) can redirect you away from the trigger before the meltdown happens, and (2) if you know you’ve got an upcoming trigger you can’t avoid, you can plan ahead of time to keep it under control. Here are some common triggers:
- Sensory dysregulation. Sensory dysregulation is a fancy way of saying “sensory overload.” It happens when a person with autistic spectrum disorder gets overwhelmed with sensory stimuli, like clothes that are too tight, scratchy tags, too much light, loud noises, too much touch, strong scents, or heavy food textures.
- Misunderstanding/misperceived social cues. Picking up on social cues is hard for everyone at times, but they can be downright exasperating for people with Asperger’s or autism.
- Negative mood states. Anxiety, depression, irritability, or vague, undefinable feelings can cause breakdowns.
- Rule-based thinking. People don’t always stick to the rules, and life can be horribly unpredictable at times. Meltdowns are more likely to happen when the way things are happening now is different to the way things happened in the past.
- Problems concentrating. It can be hard to juggle too much information, whether it’s following multi-step, complicated directions, hanging out in a place where there’s too much going on, or having half a dozen things on one’s mind.
- Pulling away from something interesting. Sometimes people have stuff that super-fascinates them, things they don’t want to stop doing. Being asked to disengage from that activity can trigger a meltdown.
How to deal with triggers
Triggers can be challenging. The first step is to learn what your triggers are and avoid them when possible. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to stay away from everything that causes a meltdown, so the second step is to learn defusing techniques. Here are some techniques. If you have problems learning these methods, ask your loved ones for help.
- Preparation. Be prepared ahead of time. Always take along something that interests you when going on outings to restaurants, doctor’s offices, work, school, etc. For example, a magazine, notebook, or iPhone. Also, take along self-soothing stuff, like music on an MP3 player or a rock with a nice texture.
- Warning signs. Recognize the signs that a meltdown is coming. Warning signs can include feeling angry or overwhelmed, tearfulness, an uncomfortable physical sensation, confusing thoughts, or sensing something isn’t right. It’s different for each person. Next time you start feeling a meltdown, pay attention to your emotional and physical sensations. These are your “warning signs.” They mean it’s time to work on defusing techniques.
- Trigger. There’s usually a trigger causing the warning signs. Figure out what it is and come up with a plan to deal with it.
- Small stuff. Choose your battles wisely. If the trigger is something small — like being told you can’t have a candy bar — it’s probably not worth getting upset over. Walk away. You’ll feel upset, and that’s okay. The emotion will likely subside on its own without your having a full meltdown. Just hang in there.
- Distract. If you can’t do anything about the trigger, try distracting yourself. Rock, count, sing, read, color, or play a game on your iPhone.
- Single sensation. Sometimes stimuli and sensations are overwhelming. Focus on a single sensation and tune out everything else: put on headphones and listen to music, feel the ground beneath your feet, or go to a quiet place and feel the silence.
- Next step. If the trigger has started a meltdown, keep reading.
How to deal with early meltdowns
Imagine the meltdown has started.
The nuclear reactor temperature gauge is going up, it’s hot but not burning hot, not yet, and things aren’t completely out of control. Problem is your cooling switch isn’t working.
It’s the same with an early human meltdown. Maybe you feel that bad sensation pooling inside your chest and head, an emotion that hurts, or it’s physical tightness and shakiness that overtakes you. Perhaps it’s a thought, “too much, too much!” You’re on red alert. Something isn’t right, and you’re not sure what to do with it. Here are some tips for dealing with those tough moments.
- Quiet place. Find a low to no-stimulation environment where you can be alone. That’s preferably a quiet spot with the lights turned low. Sit down, breath slowly, and wait for the emotion and physical sensations to back off. It isn’t easy, but they do back off.
- Self-soothing. Do something that calms you. That might include listening to music, reading, coloring, rocking, curling up with your favorite blanket, putting your hands under running water, relaxing your muscles, or thinking about something that interests you. If you need help finding a self-soothing activity, ask a trusted friend.
- Limit talk. When you’re feeling this way, it can be tough if not agitating to engage in conversation. You probably feel like your brain is on fire. Maybe you can’t process words. That’s okay. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to. If someone insists on talking, tell them, “I need some quiet time” or “I cant talk right now,” and say it as often as you need until the other person understands. It’s okay for them to talk to you every now and then to make sure you’re okay, but they’ll usually respect your need for silence — as long as you’re not hurting yourself or others! Just make sure to let everyone know when you’re ready to talk.
When the meltdown is full force
Sometimes things get worse. Say the nuclear reactor has exploded. It’s radiating toxins. In human terms, the meltdown has spiraled out of control.
Here’s where your friends, family, or staff who are working with you might step in to help, and you can help them help you. If you can, let them know what you need: “I need some quiet time,” “I’m not ready to talk,” or “please don’t touch me.”
What can others do to help get your through this? Here are some quick tips. There’s a longer list of ideas below.
- Self-soothing. They should encourage you to use your self-soothing tools (see above)
- Minimal talking. They should talk to you only when absolutely necessary, keeping words to a minimum. Your brain’s still on fire, it’s difficult to follow conversation, and they should talk only to remind you of what you’re doing and make sure you’re safe. If you’re not ready to talk, tell them, “I’m not ready to talk.”
- Calm place. It’s likely they’ll take you to a quiet place to help you calm down. This will probably be an empty, low-stim environment with nothing around that you can use to hurt yourself or others.
- Aggression. If you become aggressive or try to hurt yourself, they might need to restrain you or call the police to keep everyone safe; this is a last-ditch effort and avoided as much as possible.
The meltdown is over… what now?
Now that nuclear reactor explosion has happened, it’s time to clean up.
It’s the same for humans. Your job is to get through the next few hours and allow your brain and body time to clean themselves up and come back to normal. During that time, stay in a quiet place and use your self-soothing techniques to regain stability. If you’re not ready to talk about it, let your loved ones know: “I’m not ready to talk.”
Give yourself time to recover. You’ve survived a scary, exhausting situation. Breathe in and out, relax your neck muscles, and remember that it’s over. Everything is going to be okay.
Patience and practice are the way to abort, get through, and overcome meltdowns. If you’re struggling with this issue, consider asking a loved one to help you deal with it. Sometimes having two brains working on a problem is better than one. Just ask them to read this article and do research on dealing with meltdowns.
If you’re having devastating breakdowns no matter what you do, contact a professional for help. Talk to your family doctor for a referral, or search for a local “psychiatrists” online. The extra support, counseling, and medication can make a big difference.
Some of the information in this article was borrowed from my colleague, Karis Pearson-Parham, PhD.
If someone you love has Asperger’s or autism, consider reading caregivers: dealing with autistic meltdowns.
Need more information about Autistic meltdowns? Check out Autism.org