What is a meltdown?
Eek. This is probably the most difficult part. Everyone answers differently, and descriptions are always subjective and individual. Here is my ‘objective’ definition of my experience of a meltdown.
An intense, involuntary emotional release due to complete overload.
“Intense”. Yeah. A meltdown is the most intense emotional experience a person can have. It is what happens when other emotional responses have failed to solve the problem/s.
“Involuntary”. Once it’s going to happen, then it’s going to happen. It can be avoided by preventing overload, but once overload has happened then a meltdown is inevitable.
“Emotional release”. This is the part that describes what other people see when I’m melting down. The emotion in question can vary (more on that later), but it’s always powerful and negative. So it probably involves at least some of the following: crying, shouting, hitting myself, hitting nearby objects (sometimes people), intense stimming, attempts to escape.
“Complete overload”. This is the ultimate cause of a meltdown. ‘Overload’ is a vague term on purpose, because the type of overload can vary widely. (more on that later) It can be a combination of similar or different things, it can be long- or short-term (or both), it can be internal or external. No matter what it is, it results in an emotional inability to cope with the situation.
Types of Overload
The ultimate overload can come from a combination of different factors. In fact, it’s most likely to be a result of several different things.
- Social. Being in any social situation for a long time, being in a situation with lots of people, interacting with new people, unplanned social interaction, confusing or difficult interactions, unavoidable but unwanted interactions… etc.
- Sensory. Being somewhere loud, being somewhere crowded, being in bright sun, being too hot or too cold, being hungry, eating something I don’t like, being tired, wearing uncomfortable clothes, standing/sitting/lying in an uncomfortable place or position, bad or strong smells, people talking over one another… etc.
- Internal emotion. Being anxious about something, being angry about something, being excited or nervous in anticipation of something… etc.
- External emotion. Being around people who are arguing, people who are stressed, tired, grumpy, upset, being criticised or told off by people, being around people of incompatible emotions (e.g. someone trying to cheer up a grumpy person)… etc.
- Cognitive. Being pressured to make a big or difficult decision, being rushed to complete a task, obsessively trying to solve a problem, plans changing… etc.
These types of overload are artificially-imposed categories. Really, any factor could be put into more than one category and there are lots of things that don’t fit into any. But these categories are a good summary of the most common factors with examples.
Types of Meltdown
Although all meltdowns are ultimately the same thing, the emotion through which they are released can vary a lot. And it’s the way they are released that has the biggest effect on how they look from the outside. In my experience, I’ve noticed three main types of emotion.
- Panic. This is by far the most common one for me. In fact, this is a big part of the reason I didn’t know that I had meltdowns. It turns out that a lot of the experiences which I (and others around me) had classed as panic attacks, were actually a type of meltdown.
These are expressed through fear, anxiety, and panic. Most of the behaviours and symptoms look the same as panic and anxiety in other situations. So, lots of hyperventilating, pacing, attempting to escape the situation.
- Anger. This type was more common when I was younger. Expressions of anger through things like: throwing objects, hitting people, shouting, attempting to destroy things.
- Depression. Expressed through sadness and despair – mostly inconsolable crying, hopelessness, that kind of thing.
It’s also quite common for meltdowns to combine more than one of those types. The most common example is that something that starts out as a panic-meltdown then turns into a depression-meltdown before it subsides.
The descriptions above are what those meltdowns generally look like when I’m alone, by default. I’m lucky enough that most of the time I’ve been able to escape an unbearable situation and meltdown in private. When I was younger, meltdowns would look the same regardless of situation (for example, having huge anger-meltdowns in school at people who were making fun of me) Nowadays, if I’m trapped in the unbearable situation, the meltdown will be expressed differently.
All the emotional expression gets directed inwards instead, in order to avoid drawing attention to myself. If someone’s watching closely, they’d be able to tell – but otherwise it’s pretty well hidden. I withdraw from social interaction, make myself as small and invisible as possible, and stim in small but intense ways (like picking my fingers). All the internal symptoms are the same – the obsessive negative thoughts and strong emotion.
But this isn’t a ‘full’ meltdown. After a full meltdown, the emotion is mostly diffused and the overload meter gets reset. When I suppress a meltdown, all I’m doing is putting off the inevitable. Doing that gets harder and harder the longer I try to hold it in, until I’m able to escape the unsafe situation and meltdown for real. I imagine that if I was totally trapped in an inescapable situation, then the meltdown would eventually happen fully – regardless of the consequences.