In the stressful and overstimulating world we live in, becoming so overwhelmed by your stress that it significantly affects your behavior — an emotional meltdown — can happen to all of us.
An “emotional meltdown” isn’t exactly a medical diagnosis. “It’s used in popular discourse to describe when we are overcome emotionally, when we hit a breaking point,” says Robin Stern, PhD, licensed psychoanalyst and cofounder and director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in New Haven, Connecticut.
For some people, a meltdown may look like crying uncontrollably. For others it may look like snapping at others or lashing out angrily. And for others it may involve panicking or running away from a?stressful situation.
Dr. Stern says that an occasional meltdown is completely normal. “You may suddenly burst into tears or lash out with anger because you feel out of control, overwhelmed with pressures and things in your life that are unpredictable. That doesn’t mean something is ‘wrong’ with you,” she says.
It may, however, be an indication that you’re going through a challenging time and some of your personal and emotional needs are not being met.
The good news is that you can recover from a meltdown. You can also learn to manage the stressors in your life that threaten to push you over the edge so that future meltdowns are less likely.
Common Triggers of Emotional Meltdowns
The particulars of why emotional meltdowns happen are unique to the individual and the situation, but certain conditions raise the likelihood of a meltdown occurring in many, if not most, people.
Kassondra Glenn, a licensed master social worker and consultant with Prosperity Haven Treatment Center in Chardon, Ohio, explains that these common triggers can include:
- Being Overtired?Getting too little sleep, particularly if it’s night after night, can make you more irritable, short-tempered, and vulnerable to stress, accoridng to the?Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical.
- Hunger?Even if you consume enough calories in a given day, going too long without food may result in a blood sugar level that’s low enough to cause low energy, shakiness, headaches, and troubles focusing, notes?Penn Medicine.
- Being Overwhelmed or Overscheduled?Taking on too many responsibilities at once — or even agreeing to too many social activities — is a surefire recipe for feeling overwhelmed.
- Big Life Transitions?Getting or losing a job, starting or ending a relationship, moving to a new home, getting married, having a baby, graduating college, and many other normal life transitions make you more emotionally vulnerable.
- Unaddressed Relationship Issues?The closer the relationship, the more important it is to address differences as they arise. Allowing conflicts to fester typically results in more minor disagreements that aren’t problems in and of themselves (such as arguing about what movie to watch), but rather represent bigger issues, notes?Arizona State University. More disagreements equal more stress, not less.
If you’re prone to meltdowns, think about what tends to lead up to them or to set them off. Some may be easily resolved, such as being sure to eat more frequently. Others may take more work, such as learning better communication skills.
How to Stop an Emotional Meltdown if You Feel One Coming On
You can’t stop difficult situations from occurring, but you can change how you respond to them. The next time you start feeling the?signs of acute stress?— your face getting hot, hands getting cold, breathing getting shallow — pay attention to how you feel and, unless you’re being called upon to save someone’s life, take steps to calm yourself before attempting to respond to what’s happening.
“It’s important to pause when we’re experiencing any overwhelming emotion. Our brains are operating differently in these moments and do not have the capacity to make logical decisions,” Glenn says.
Grounding techniques, such as sending awareness toward your feet, touching your fingertips together, and breathing exercises can be helpful ways to calm yourself down, she adds.
Glenn prefers this five-step deep breathing routine:
- Take a deep breath in for four seconds.
- Hold the breath for four seconds.
- Breathe out for four seconds.
- Pause for four seconds before taking another breath.
- Repeat until you feel calmer.
Remember, these steps won’t reverse a difficult situation or make the problem that triggered your strong emotional response go away. But calming yourself down before responding helps you cope with the situation from a less emotional and more thoughtful place, Glenn says.
How to Recover if You’ve Had an Emotional Meltdown
How do you feel after you’ve had a meltdown? Do you feel embarrassed or ashamed of your behavior or of letting others know how you feel? Do you feel relieved that you’ve expressed your feelings or justified for letting them out? Are you afraid or anxious about possible repercussions for your outburst?
While most people would rather forget a meltdown as quickly as possible, it can be a learning experience, Stern says.
For example, if you see that you tend to melt down when you’re trying to do too much at once, you can use that information in a positive way by learning to manage your time better or learning to say “no” more often, Stern says.
If you feel embarrassed about revealing your emotions in public, you might examine how you feel about your feelings. Why isn’t it okay for you to be angry, or to be sad, or to need something from someone else? Feeling ashamed about your emotions won’t help you handle them better in the future. So, be kind to yourself, Glenn says.
And what if you feel relieved after a meltdown? Sometimes expressing your feelings — even in the form of a meltdown — can relieve stress if you’ve been holding your emotions in check. But wouldn’t it be better to learn to express your feelings before you got to the point of dissolving in tears or lashing out at others? It’s not easy, but it is possible to express your emotions in a healthy way so that you’re not bottling them up inside, Stern says.
Also, know that while you never need to apologize for your feelings, you may need to apologize for your behavior or for the way you expressed your feelings.
If your meltdown involved raising your voice at other people or behavior like throwing or slamming an object while in the presence of others, apologize and come up with a plan to manage your emotions differently the next time you’re upset or stressed, Stern says. If you find this type of behavior is common for you and you're having difficulty managing it on your own, consider reaching to a therapist for help coming up with alternative coping strategies. Having an emotional meltdown is never an excuse for abusive behavior, whether verbal or physical.
But do be kind to yourself, Glenn says. “We all get overwhelmed sometimes and shaming ourselves about it is not helpful.”
How to Prevent Emotional Meltdowns From Happening
The better you get at nipping meltdowns in the bud, the less likely you are to ever have another one. But why not take steps to reduce the negative stress in your life so you don’t even come close to having a meltdown? Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Adopt stress-reducing routines.?A stress-reduction plan involves regularly taking time for yourself to do things that are healthful and relaxing, such as exercise, journaling, laughing, and meditation. Taking steps to regularly cope with everyday stressors as they come up, rather than letting them pile up, lessens the chance that you’ll get to the point of feeling overwhelmed by stress, Stern says.
- Listen to your body. According to the?Cleveland Clinic, tight muscles, headaches, exhaustion, and other types of pain and discomfort are common physical symptoms of stress. If you notice any of these red flags that your body is more stressed than usual, take note and take steps to cope with that stress in healthy ways, rather than let yourself boil over, says Stern.
- Don’t ignore negative or tough feelings.?Sweeping difficult-to-deal-with feelings under a rug doesn’t make them go away. “Once you can ‘name’ a feeling, you can ‘tame’ a feeling,” Stern says. “Identifying your feelings helps you to understand causes and consequences of unpleasant feelings and to better handle them when they do come up.” Research shows that putting feelings into words (a process known as “affect labeling”) can actually tame the way your brain responds to upsetting things.
- Ask for help.?“Enlisting family and friends for support is a huge buffer to any stressors,” says Jenny Yip, PsyD, a Los Angeles–based psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders. When possible, see if your loved ones can help by taking tasks off your already-full plate. Or simply talk about your worries with someone who can listen nonjudgmentally.
- Spend more time in nature.?Being in a natural environment has been shown to have calming effects. Simply being in contact with the sights and sounds of nature, such as the wind blowing, water running, and birds and insects making their natural noises, can lower pulse rates and cortisol (stress hormone) levels, research?(PDF) shows.
- Make time for fun and play.?Everyone needs to recharge from time to time by doing things they enjoy, and laughter itself is a great way to lower stress. A good chuckle stimulates circulation, helps your muscles relax, and releases feel-good endorphins, all of which soothe symptoms of stress, according to Mayo Clinic.
- Get professional help if you need it.?If you’re feeling overwhelmed, a therapist or other mental health care provider can help you understand how to feel less overwhelmed or come up with another coping strategy for what’s going on, Stern says. Therapists employ many different techniques for helping people cope with stress, anxiety, and other difficult emotions, Dr. Yip says.