We’ve all seen little kids absolutely lose their sh*t over nonsense. My daughter literally flipped her lid because she didn’t like the sweatshirt I packed for her. One time she cried so hard she puked because she didn’t want to go to gymnastics or she wasn’t happy about how I cut her pizza. You get the point. Toddlers and young children are nonsensical when it comes to their emotions. But they’re not the only ones who can have full-on meltdowns from time to time. Adults can be emotional wrecks and have breakdowns too. So if you’ve ever felt like your head might explode and you can’t stop crying over not knowing what to do first on your to-do list, or because you’re overwhelmed by life, we feel you. We’ve been there. And it’s going to be okay.
The key to surviving these unstable, emotionally and mentally exhausting experiences and periods of chaos and confusion is not to deny they are happening or to give in to the self-destructive cycle of bad behavior, but to embrace the emotions and turn that meltdown into a transitional miracle.
Picture how you feel when you become overwhelmed by your emotions. Regardless of the context or cause of those feelings, your typical pattern probably goes something like this: you start to panic, you cry, you scream, you blame others or yourself, you blow up, you say things you don’t mean, you calm down, you feel a release, you regret what you said or did, you file away your resentment until next time, when the same damaging behavioral pattern begins all over again. It’s a vicious cycle that might provide some temporary relief, but it never really solves anything, and it certainly doesn’t help propel you forwards or give you the tools you need to better cope with those powerful emotions.
The key to success as a human being — toddler, adult or otherwise — is to learn not how to ignore or bury your emotions, but rather to manage those emotions and channel that emotional drive into something healthy and productive. It’s an art form and a practice, but turning your meltdown into a transformational experience can be done, and we’re here to help.
Why Do We Meltdown?
As with so much that doesn’t make sense or seem quite right as adults, our meltdowns and emotional struggles really begin during childhood. Sure, kids experience meltdowns (often) when they are young, largely due to the fact that they are still learning how to navigate their emotions, how to handle disappointment or unfair situations, and how to coexist with others. It’s totally normal for a kid to have a complete hissy fit because another child takes his or her toy, or because mommy walks away, or because you say no, or because they don’t want to take a nap… but as a parent, how you respond to those tantrums can really make or break your child’s ability to cope as an adult. As if parenting wasn’t stressful enough as it is, now you have the pressure of a healthy life resting on how you stay calm and collected while your kid is throwing his oatmeal at your face…
The way parents respond to meltdowns sets a framework for how we self-regulate our own meltdowns later in life.
According to Roberta Satow Ph.D., psychotherapist and professor emeritus at Brooklyn College, being able to console yourself is a crucial part of being a resilient adult, but if we aren’t taught those skills when we are children, we may struggle to effectively cope with those emotions once we are grown, resulting in meltdowns rather than healthy internal dialogues. And while adult temper tantrums and meltdowns are normal, but that doesn’t mean they are helpful or healthy in any way.
Psychologist Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, notes that “many of us were exposed to destructive responses early in our lives — negative talk, screaming, blaming and so on. They require little cognitive control, and they’re often effective at getting rid of negative feelings and providing temporary gratification.” Meaning that much of how we cope with those meltdowns or overwhelming feelings of frustration, anger, disappointment or sadness might provide some immediate relief, but it doesn’t help us cope in the long run. While we are seeking an instant release from our state of meltdown, “we fail to realize these strategies also can ruin our relationships and derail us from achieving our goals,” he explains.
And so, he developed a better way of dealing with meltdowns, and turning them into something beneficial.
It’s All About Effective Coping Mechanisms
Brackett, along with his colleague Robin Stern, psychoanalyst and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, developed a tool they refer to as the Meta-Moment. This tool is a part of their larger RULER approach, which focuses on the importance and value of emotions and helps people learn how to manage those emotions effectively.
RULER is an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) that recognizes that emotions are valuable tools in helping to influence attention, memory and learning, as well as impacting our creativity, our mental and physical wellbeing, our workplace performance and positive relationships, just to graze the surface.
Brackett and Rosen quickly realized that the way adults were often coping with their emotions and their meltdowns was not actually helping to reconcile whatever was causing that emotional breakdown in the first place. And the rash and drastic reactions we often turn to when we are feeling emotionally overwhelmed (screaming, blaming, being overcome by rage, or completely denying the emotions exist) are not healthy or efficient. Instead, he and his team recognized the need for a pause.
That’s right, we all need to pause. Just as how we may tell our kids to take a break and breathe before they react, we need to do the same for ourselves.
He explains this Meta-Moment as “a hitting of the brakes and stepping out of time. We call it “meta” because it’s a moment about a moment. It might mean mentally counting, as in 1, 2, 3, or 1 to 10, depending on the severity of the emotion. Taking one or several deep breaths may also be a part of it — anything to give ourselves room to maneuver and deactivate.”
By pausing in our reaction, taking a step back and breathing, it helps us go beyond our first impulse and find a wiser response, Brackett explains. Rash reactions in the heat of an emotional moment rarely yield the most effective or beneficial long-term results. “Pausing and taking a deep breath activates our parasympathetic nervous system. This reduces the release of cortisol, a major stress hormone, and naturally lowers our emotional temperature.” It gives you a chance to reflect, and really think through your reaction and what you want to do next.
So how, exactly, do you step back and really reflect on a situation, especially when you’re so emotionally charged that you can barely see straight? There are a few tools and tactics to consider, and remember that not everything works for everyone. If you’re practicing the Meta-Moment technique, the basic steps are:
Sense the Shift
Recognize when you start to feel a shift in your thinking or body and when a meltdown is coming, as the result of an intense emotional reaction or impulse.
Stop or Pause
Step back and breathe. Count to 3, or 10, or whatever you need to give yourself time to calm down a bit from your meltdown before it gets out of hand.
See Your Best Self
You need to figure out what visuals or cues will help you the most. Some people have words that they say to themselves to calm down and pause. Some people have visual reminders or objects that help them feel more centered. Just find something that reminds you of how you feel when you’re being your best self — aka, not in the midst of an emotional meltdown. The idea is that visualizing your best self will help to redirect your attention away from whatever triggered your meltdown, and will bring you back to your core values.
Strategize and Act
Recognize that your impulse and the way you instinctively want to respond (cry, scream, run away etc.) is not the best option, and instead choose a healthier response.
These steps work in a wide variety of scenarios. In an excerpt from his book Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, Brackett clarifies that the Meta-Moment is not just for regulating unpleasant emotions, but can also be used to help us all stand up for what is right and effectively work through tough conversations diplomatically. If someone says something that is wrong or offensive, instead of freaking out and screaming at them, taking a pause and visualizing what you really feel and what you want to say can help you deliver your message loud and clear — no need to lose your cool or get overly emotional.
In the Aftermath of a Meltdown
Meltdowns are common, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t embarrassing. After all, meltdowns can manifest in a variety of ways, from excessive crying (we’re talking sobbing, face covered in snot, ugly crying) to lashing out at others, to running away. But even worse than embarrassment, meltdowns can have other lasting repercussions for yourself and your relationships if they aren’t handled appropriately. In order to turn that meltdown into an opportunity for growth and self-improvement you need to learn how to manage the stressors in your life that often take you to the brink of sanity or even send you over the edge.
First, consider the common triggers that cause your meltdowns. Are you exhausted? Spread too thin? Dealing with a major life change? Are you in an unhealthy or unstable relationship? Are you not eating enough (or eating too much)? If you are able to pause, breathe, and then identify these triggers that are causing you stress, you’ll be one step closer to dealing with your meltdowns in a healthy way. And more than that, you’ll be able to really work through the root of your emotional issues. If something someone said or did is what caused you to lose your cool and scream or burst into tears, chances are their words aren’t the real issue, but other underlying emotions are. And in order to nip these meltdowns in the bud, you need to deal with what’s really bugging you.
You also need to ensure that you are your healthiest self, physically and cognitively, in order to be your healthiest self emotionally. Working through emotional issues takes effort, energy and brainpower. Make sure you are sticking to a balanced diet, you are getting enough rest, you are exercising regularly, and you are focusing on activities and relationships that bring you joy. It’s all related — how you feel, how you act, how you take care of yourself — and if you are in good shape in one aspect of your life, all other areas of your wellbeing will also feel better.
It’s also a good idea to practice mindful breathing regularly, even when you’re not feeling emotionally charged or on the verge of a meltdown. Sure, breathing can help you get back to a more neutral place when you’re dealing with intense emotions, but it can also enhance our ability to be present and to acknowledge and accept the feelings that arise throughout our daily lives.
For years studies have investigated the relationship between mindful breathing, stress and wellness. Controlled breathing has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system, and while the science behind why these breathing techniques work is still catching up to the practice itself, studies have shown that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. In the NY Times, Dr. Richard Brown, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath, notes that one possible theory to support this is that “controlled breathing can change the response of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious processes such as heart rate and digestion as well as the body’s stress response.” The key takeaway here is that mindful breathing is a crucial skill to help you navigate your emotions on a daily basis.
Give yourself permission to feel, but also give yourself the tools you need to manage those feelings in a productive way. Meltdowns don’t need to be the endgame; in fact, they can be the beginning of everything that comes next. Once you learn to manage those emotional breakdowns and you recognize the need to put in work to be your best self, then everything that comes after will be better — your health, your relationships and even your sense of self.