The Art Of The 'Good' Meltdown

Too much stress can lead to destructive emotional outbursts. Here’s how to have them the right way

y Elizabeth Bernstein.From the Wall Street Journal Updated: Jun 17, 2022 15:29:34 IST
The Art Of The 'Good' Meltdown Photo by Joleen Zubek. Illustration by Maria Amador

Preston Woodruff held himself together for months during the pandemic—working in his garden and workshop, sharing meals with his daughter and walking in the woods behind his home. Then a sneeze sent him over the edge.

Woodruff was sleeping soundly when he woke to an uncomfortable feeling in his nose. He reached for the box of tissues on his nightstand. None peeked up from the top. He tried and tried to dig one out. The entire wad remained tightly wound.

So Woodruff grabbed the box,crushed it in his hands, and flung it at the far wall of his bedroom. Alone in the dark, he slammed his head back on the pillow and swore.“I momentarily lost it,” says Woodruff, a retired philosophy professor.Welcome to the meltdown. Have you had one lately?

It’s what happens after you’ve held it together through a pandemic and a quarantine, working from home and homeschooling and the most divisive public discourse in several lifetimes—on top of the dishes and the laundry and your regular familial responsibilities. Then, when something seemingly small happens, suddenly you're alone in your car screaming or sobbing to your dog about,well, everything.

Losing control of our emotions is nothing new, of course. But lately we’ve been doing it a whole lot more because of our sustained levels ofstress, anger and fear. We’ve been overwhelmed by bad news, exhaustedby the need to be ever- vigilant. It’s nowonder our fuses have been short.

Think you’ve never had a melt-down? Think again. Although we typically expect meltdowns to look like the adult version of a tod-dler’s tantrum—wailing, whining,whimpering— psychologists say they can manifest in different ways: crying,rage, silence or an emotional shut-down. “Often, people don’t identify with the word meltdown because of the stigma of having a mental health crisis,” says Amanda Luterman, a licenced psychotherapist in Montreal,Canada. “They will just say they are having a really horrible day.

”What most meltdowns have in common is a loss of emotional control—often manifested physically—and a sense of helplessness. They occur when we no longer have the emotional resources to deal with our stress. And they’re typically triggered by something small and unanticipated—a stubbed toe, a spill on our shirt or (for me recently) a broken backspace key on the laptop.

Yet meltdowns have an upside.They allow us to release tension,and once we do that, we can think more clearly because we’re no longer spending all our energy trying to hold it together. “A meltdown is the body’s natural mechanism to let go,to cleanse itself of painful emotions,” says Tal Ben-Shahar, a psychologist who specializes in the science of happiness. “It lets us reset.”

Not all meltdowns are created equal. Bad ones happen often and can hurt people around us or leave us feeling worse. Good ones are rare, ideally take place when we’re alone and leave us feeling better than we did before.

To have a productive meltdown,experts say we should accept that it’s happening (or about to). Meltdowns are as natural as gravity, says Ben-Shahar. We need to identify what will make us feel better—and explain this to others. We should be careful to manage the negative effects and explore the meaning afterward.

Woodruff, of the tissue tantrum,has minor meltdowns several times a week nowadays and makes a point of taking his frustration out on inanimate objects—throwing a piece of wood across his workshop or slamming silverware into the dishwasher.He sometimes plans his emotional urges in advance. When he replaced his ageing computer a while back, he carried the machine out to his fire pit,destroyed it with a sledgehammer and set it on fire.

But Woodruff makes sure to keep his outbursts brief. “It’s wasted energy and wasted time to focus too long on the hostility of the moment,” he says.“I let it out, and then I have an immediate feeling of relief.”

Mike Veny was walking to his truck one afternoon when he received an email from a colleague stating that some information he needed for a project wasn’t available. Immediately, his stomach dropped. His fists clenched.He began stomping down the street,ranting about a growing list of complaints: a coworker who annoyed him,the state of the country, whether people on the street were looking at him funny, how his dad hadn’t called him all week. “It was like going down a rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland,” says Veny, who lives in New York City and owns a company that provides mental wellness and diversity training for corporations. “It spiraled faster and faster until things felt 10,000 times worse than they really were.”

Luckily, Veny has a plan for dealing with meltdowns. He paused in the middle of the street to collect himself and then got into his truck. He sat for 20 minutes and thought about the answers to three questions: What do I feel? (Anger, but also sadness at losing work and fear of whether he would get the coronavirus by going to the gym.) Where do I feel it? (In his chest and stomach.) What do I need now?(Time to feel his emotions rather than suppress them.)

Next, he went to the gym. The music was loud, and he cursed while he worked out. When he got home, he did yoga, which he says helps him let go of his emotions. In bed that night, Veny realized he had a smile on his face.“I felt free of whatever it was that had been cooking up inside me,” he says. “I felt like I was in control again, like I had taken my power back.”

Here are some tips on how to have an effective meltdown:

Accept it. Don’t judge yourself. A meltdown lets you release tension and frees up energy that was spent suppressing emotions.

Know what you need. Some people prefer to be left alone when they lose control. Others want a hug or a pep talk. Be clear with your loved ones about your needs, says Luterman.

Model a good meltdown. No kicking the dog, punching the wall or full-blown meltdowns in front of children—it can frighten them. But showing others, especially kids, that you can express painful emotions in a way that doesn't negatively affect others can be an important lesson. “Having an occasional meltdown and recovering from it helps people see that we can be OK through these expressions,” says Carrie Krawiec, a licenced marriage and family therapist.

Try an ‘alternate rebellion’. When we lose control, we often want to rebel:quit our job or yell at our father-in-law. Instead, plan a healthy rebellion that satisfies the need to assert control in your life, recommends Jenny Taitz,a psychologist and assistant clinical professor at the University of California,Los Angeles. One idea: Tell others that you are turning off your phone for a while and can’t be reached, then go do something you enjoy.Calm yourself, explore the meaning of your meltdown and move on. Get some intense exercise or try paced breathing—six counts in and eight counts out—to calm your nervous system. Then reflect on what happened. Apologize if you’ve upset others—and forgive yourself: Having a meltdown makes you human.

Reprinted by permission of WALL STREET JOURNAL(6 october 2020), copyright © 2020 by dow jones & company, inc. all Rights Reserved worldwide.


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