In the context of psychology, a state of extreme mental or emotional distress that causes the affected person to lose control of their emotions, behavior, or thoughts is referred to as a meltdown. A meltdown can occur in people of all ages and is often associated with various mental disorders or neurodivergences, particularly autism, ADHD, anxiety disorders, and stress disorders.
Causes of a meltdown: reasons
There can be a variety of reasons for a meltdown, and depending on the individual and the underlying disorder or neurodivergence, the causes will vary. In many cases, overwhelm plays a role. This can be sensory or mental, and often the meltdown is the result of a combination of sensory and mental overload. This can be the case, for example, when an affected person has to process too many tasks at the same time and cannot find a quiet place to devote himself to the tasks undisturbed.
Instead, the person is constantly bombarded with more or less relevant information, usually over a longer period of time, until a meltdown finally occurs. In neurodivergences such as autism, this is exacerbated by a frequent stimulus filtering weakness in which the brain has difficulty distinguishing relevant from irrelevant stimuli. However, especially in autistic individuals, sensory overload can be enough to cause a meltdown. This sensory overload can be triggered, for example, by chaotic, uncontrollable volume, bright lights or intense smells.
Emotional distress or emotionally stressful situations can also cause a meltdown, even if the person is actually mentally stable and neurotypical. This can happen when strong emotions such as sadness, anger or frustration persist for a long time or cannot be adequately processed or expressed.
Symptoms and signs: Meltdown
Meltdown manifests itself very differently depending on the person. Symptoms can range from physical to behavioral and emotional reactions and last for varying lengths of time. Physically, a meltdown can look similar to a panic attack. The affected person may shake or sweat, breathe rapidly or even lose consciousness for a short time.
On the emotional side, a person experiencing a meltdown may, for example, suddenly be gripped by intense feelings such as strong anger or overwhelming sadness. In many cases, it can then be very difficult to impossible to calm the person down or control the outburst.
These strong emotions are often expressed physically, which is why individuals who are experiencing a meltdown may scream, punch, kick, cry uncontrollably or even hurt themselves.
In many cases, clear, rational thought is no longer possible until the Meltdown has passed.
Coping strategies: Meltdown
The best way to cope with meltdowns is to prevent them or to recognize an impending meltdown in good time. To do this, watch for early signs of overwhelm, sensory overload or emotional stress. These vary from person to person, and it takes sensitive conversations and, in most cases, a close relationship with the person to recognize the signs. If possible, an outside person can help the person remove him or herself from the stressful situation or provide other reassuring support to avoid escalation.
Self-regulation and self-awareness, in the sense of being well aware of one’s own limits, is also important in avoiding or averting meltdowns. If you are unable to avoid situations that can cause a meltdown, self-regulation techniques such as breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation or meditation can help. Headphones that block out noise or dark sunglasses can also help prevent or at least mitigate a meltdown.
Since meltdowns most often occur due to sensory overload, changing the environment can also help. For example, dimming lights or reducing noise by closing doors or windows or turning off other sources of noise such as the television or radio can help.
Last but not least, structure and routine in daily life also help to avoid meltdowns, as they bring security and predictability to the affected individuals. This reduces unexpected sensory stimuli in particular, and individuals can better prepare themselves mentally for what lies ahead.
Medication and professional help such as therapy can also help affected individuals reduce the frequency of meltdowns or develop strategies to better regulate themselves.
What can outsiders do to help affected people?
If you have a person in your circle of friends or family who is prone to meltdowns, it can help to educate yourself about meltdowns and their causes so that you can provide the best possible support to the affected person if the situation arises. In addition, it is important to remain calm and relaxed as an outside person during the accompaniment of a meltdown, otherwise the situation can escalate even further. Through this so-called co-regulation, the person experiencing a meltdown can find their way back to a normal state more quickly:
Speaking softly and calmly, avoiding quick movements and loud noises, and radiating a generally safe, warm presence can help. On top of this, it is important to protect yourself and the affected person during a meltdown, and to provide reassurance.
If possible, you can let the affected person know that you are there for them and, in the worst case scenario, protect them from harming themselves or others.
Furthermore, a companion can help the affected person use familiar coping strategies. For example, you can do breathing exercises together.
Further meaning of meltdown
In nuclear power, „meltdown“ is when the core of a nuclear reactor melts and threatens to leak into the environment.
„Meltdown“ is the name of a hardware security vulnerability in microprocessors.