We often think of meltdowns in the context of children, but adults can have emotional meltdowns as well. Especially in the past few years, with rising tensions in our world and personal lives, I think we’ve all been on the brink of an emotional meltdown periodically. (Keep in mind that, for the purposes of this article, we are using the term “emotional meltdown” as a synonym for extreme emotional dysregulation that results in lashing out or other unhelpful behaviors. We are not using it in the context of a sensory meltdown, which may require a different approach.)

What is an Emotional Meltdown?

What does an emotional meltdown look like in adults? It may be relational (interpersonal). This could look like suddenly snapping at a partner and saying things that have been building up for awhile.  It could be intrapersonal, meaning it’s an internal struggle. We’ve all heard of the mid-life crisis where someone starts to question their meaning or purpose.  Emotional meltdowns and the symptoms thereof can occur rarely or frequently, with varying degrees of intensity.

We hear a lot about how to prevent meltdowns (good communication, self-care, regular spiritual practices that keep us rooted and grounded) but what we don’t hear a lot about is what to do after we’ve had a meltdown.  What does the repair process look like? If we’ve created pain or damage to a loved one or to ourselves, what do we do then? 

The first step, even before repairing with anyone else involved, is regulating your own emotions by stepping back and walking away from the trigger or stimuli if needed. Meltdowns are a flashing neon sign that you are under an enormous amount of stress beyond your bodies capability.  Just like our bodies spike physical fevers to show that we are fighting off something invasive, an emotional meltdown can be conceptualized as an “emotional fever” of sorts. Just like we’d rest and provide supportive care for a fever, we may need a break to recover and rest from our emotional stress if it’s become overwhelming. Taking a time of rest can help us avoid getting stuck in a shame-cycle after an emotional meltdown. It can also give us the clarity needed to step back and tend to the short-term repair process. What does that process look like?

  1. Allow your body to metabolize all the stress chemicals that were just released.  When we get emotionally activated, our body releases adrenaline, cortisol, and a host of other chemicals to move us into action.  Sometimes, that action is helpful (if you’re actually in danger) but if you’re not in actual danger, just overwhelmed, we can lash out at our loved ones as if they are the enemy. Remember this: When your brain is in fight, flight or freeze mode, it feels threatened and WILL find an enemy (whether that’s an unsuspecting partner or self-shame turning against yourself).  Many individuals find it helpful to pause in moments of emotional overwhelm and ask themselves the question “Is this person truly the enemy or am I just overwhelmed and want to take that out on someone?” 
  2. It can take up to 20 minutes for those stress hormones released in a meltdown to get metabolized in the body.  Take these moments of stress detoxing to calm down, practice self-soothing measures, steady your breathing and allow yourself to cry if needed.  Tears are truly healing. Our body releases cortisol and adrenaline through our tears. These chemicals are the very stress hormones that have built up in our bodies over time that lead to meltdowns and health issues. Researchers have also established that crying releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, also known as endorphins. These feel-good chemicals help ease both physical and emotional pain. As challenging as it may be, the best way to handle difficult feelings, including sadness and grief, is to embrace them.

Once we are emotionally and chemically regulated, it’s time to start the repair process.  It’s difficult in the moment, but resilience is built through the process of rupture and repair.  We will not be resilient if we don’t have anything to bounce back from.  Do not despise your times of mistake or weakness — they can build valuable opportunities to build your resilience if handled graciously.  Everyone wants the end result of resiliency, but we must first embrace the difficult process of growth that leads us there.

How do we repair?

It’s important to have taken enough time to calm down so we can adequately understand factors that led us to lashing out and, in turn, communicate clearly with our loved ones effectively.   Have anyone ever offered you an apology that is sort of vague and forced? Usually, it’s because they are either 1.) Not really ready to repair OR 2.) They just haven’t taken the time yet to really consider what happened and what actually went wrong.  To avoid these halfhearted apologies, try to do these 3 things when you apologize:

  1. Take ownership of your part 
  2. Seek to make restitution with an identifier of what could be different next time
  3. Don’t force forgiveness — allow the other person the space they need to process. We all get anxious about reconciling and sitting in tension with someone we love can feel uncomfortable. However, it’s important not to rush the forgiveness process just because we feel discomfort with the relational tension. Allow the other person to truly receive your apology and take the time they need to forgive. This will yield longer lasting healing because it’s born of intentionality and not forced or coerced.

Now what?

Just like it can take time to heal from a physical injury or surgery, it can take time to heal from emotional meltdowns and conflict.  You may feel a little “emotional bruise” of sorts while you process what happened.  Honor that need to heal, and take care of yourself physically and emotionally while you gather your emotional strength again. Maybe this means clearing off an hour of your calendar or not attending a social event (or, if you’re an extrovert, planning a social event!). Do some emotional “physical therapy” to build back your strength by focusing on what’s going right in your world, listing a few things you learned from the meltdown and prioritizing ways to avoid any collateral damage next time you feel that type of emotional reactivity arise. 

Keep in mind that lack of self-care could have been one main contributing factor to the emotional dysregulation that led to the meltdown. An emotional meltdown is a VERY loud universal message that you need to take care of yourself. It is important to hear and heed that message. If you need additional support in emotional regulation, meltdown recovery or self-care, check out our main page to be connected to a Georgia therapist near you.