Tag Archives: meltdown


I think that the edges of myself are not very well-defined. It doesn’t take much for me to lose track of where those edges are.

Other people’s edges are much bolder, so they overwrite mine when they’re too close. Socialising is when I can’t be sure which edges are mine and which are other people’s. Sometimes it’s nice, more often it’s scary.

Strong sensory input is dazzling and makes the edges too dim to be seen. Sensory overload is when the edges become completely invisible and all I can do is hope that they are in the last place I saw them.

Anxiety is when the edges seem to be shrinking in and cutting off the important bits of me, so that I can’t defend myself or block anything bad from getting in.

Meltdown is when the edges are gone completely. They shrink so much that they disappear, and everything becomes a part of me and I can’t escape.

Contentment is when I find something that perfectly fits the shape of my edges, and I can hold it against myself and it becomes – not a shield, not armour – but perfectly fitting clothing. Something that does the job of reminding me where the edges are, so I don’t have to keep focusing on them.

Joy is when my edges swell and grow and envelop everything I care about and it all becomes a part of me and everything is right.

Overload and shutdown

I had a busy weekend. In the course of about twenty-four hours, it involved:

  • Two long car journeys (including one which was almost double the expected length due to traffic)
  • Near-constant social situations except for sleep
  • Eating unfamiliar things in unfamiliar places, repeatedly
  • Sleeping in an unfamiliar place
  • Several busy social situations with lots of new people
  • Unstructured time in inescapable social situations

…and that’s just the highlights. Overall, it wasn’t completely un-enjoyable – it was just extremely tiring.

I thought it would be a good occasion to write about how I deal with overload when it doesn’t turn into full meltdown. The busyness was spread fairly evenly over the time, and I managed to get enough breaks to keep myself together until we got home – for which I’m quite proud of myself!

Noticing Overload

This is something I am really not very good at. When I’m in a social situation, I automatically switch to ‘NT-passing mode’. Stimming gets shut down, speech gets ramped up, and I start to drain all of my excess resources to keep it going. It requires an unsustainable amount of energy – that is, it takes more energy in a given time than I am able to renew.

But its only fairly recently that I even realised I had an NT-passing mode. I used to just think that I became inexplicably more sociable and energetic when I was forced into a social situation, even if I had been dreading it. In fact, that’s something that had me confused about depression for a long while, too. I used to doubt that I could be depressed, because I always seemed to be so happy when I socialised. But really, that ‘happy’ act had nothing to do with depression, it was just my automatic NT-passing kicking in.

So, I’ve learnt that I do have an NT-passing mode. But I still have great trouble identifying it. I can talk about it in a detached way like this, but it’s very hard for me to recognise it when it’s actually happening. And that can be troublesome, because it means I can’t always tell when I’m being overloaded (until it’s too late and I’m melting down).

My best solution is simply to learn what kinds of situation overload me, and then assume I’m being overloaded, even if I don’t actually feel it. I’m getting better at doing that – and this weekend is a good example. I knew in advance that it was going to be difficult, so I made sure to look after myself during the time – even if I didn’t think I felt overloaded.


Being in NT-passing mode or in an overloading situation uses more energy than I can replace in the same time. That means that after the situation is over, I’ll be left with an energy debt. The longer-lasting or more difficult the situation, the greater the debt. In order to ‘repay’ that debt, I have to find a way to renew as much energy as possible, and spend as little as possible.

This is what I think of as a ‘shutdown’. I know that definitions of shutdown vary even more than meltdowns. Some people say a shutdown is a type of meltdown, or that it’s what happens before a meltdown, or after a meltdown, or it’s a meltdown in a specific situation… But for me, a shutdown is the opposite of overload – it’s the way I recharge my energy in the most efficient way possible.

There are different degrees of shutdown, just like there are different degrees of overload. If I’ve been socialising with my parents for a couple of hours, I will want to go to my room alone for a while afterwards. That’s the same type of response as when I sleep for ten hours solid following a huge party.

Defining shutdown

Shutting down involves two main things: 1. reducing the energy I’m spending, and 2. maximising the energy I’m gaining.

Reducing energy expenditure

  • I’ll always avoid further socialising after an overloading situation. Ideally, I would be completely alone until I felt fully recovered. Otherwise I’ll hide in my room away from anyone who might be in the house, or spend my time on independent activities and avoid unnecessary interaction.
  • I avoid physical activity. Although physical tiredness is different to overload tiredness, they feel similar. And physically exerting myself will drain overload energy as well as physical energy. I generally want to stay in the house and spend most of my time sitting or lying down. I often sleep a lot more than usual following an overload. Generally I need a pretty small amount of sleep, and I never nap during the day. But the day after my busy 24 hours this weekend, I slept in until almost midday and then dozed on and off throughout the afternoon. It’s disconcerting to feel so sleepy, but I’m getting better at accepting it as part of overload.
  • I avoid anything which may provoke anxiety. Anxiety contributes to a lot of overload for me, so I do everything I can to reduce it. This generally means avoiding any situation which is remotely threatening, difficult, new, or unpredictable.
  • I avoid thinking about anything too difficult. I’m in no state to make important decisions or solve problems – everything gets put on hold until I’ve recovered my energy.

Maximing energy gain

  • Stimming. Lots and lots of stimming. I find that I’m much more interested in large-scale movements when I’m recovering from overload. Lots of rocking, swaying, waving my arms, pacing. These movements help me figure out where my body is, which is important after overload – because NT-passing mode involves being very distracted from my internal state.
  • Physical rest. This is partly a way of reducing energy loss (like above), but it also recharges energy in itself. I sleep a lot, and when I’m not sleeping I’m flopping around or dozing or lying down.
  • Doing my favourite things. After overload I’m usually too tired to properly concentrate on learning about my special interests, or actively engaging with them. But doing things which are tangentially related makes me feel happier and calmer. So I’m likely to do easy special-interest-related things like watching my favourite TV shows, or even just thinking about my special interests.
  • Waiting. In the end, there’s nothing I can do to skip over a shutdown. Once I’ve been overloaded, I will have to spend time regaining energy. I can help that process along and make it more pleasant by doing all these things, but it’s still going to happen whether I like it or not.


My busy twenty-four hours was from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon. It’s now Monday afternoon, and I’m almost feeling back to normal. I’m still a bit more sleepy than usual (and I slept for longer than usual last night). I’m still feeling a bit more averse to going out. But I’m able to do some light socialising today, and my cognitive power is pretty much back to normal. I’m getting better at knowing my limits, and knowing what I need to recover.

Meltdowns and panic attacks

I realised after my latest post that I didn’t really explain how I learnt that my ‘panic attacks’ were meltdowns all along.

I spent so long researching meltdowns and trying to figure out if I experienced them or not. But it was only when I did more research into panic attacks that I realised my assumption had been wrong from the start. My first ‘panic attacks’ were when I was pretty young, so I just trusted the people around me when they told me that’s what they were. There was no reason to question it, because anxiety was the predominant emotion.

But one thing I came across when I was learning about panic attacks recently was “sudden onset”. Mine almost never started suddenly. Instead, they came after a gradual increase in stress and anxiety, as a result of various (mostly external) factors. That’s when I realised the description of meltdowns was a better fit: because it took into account the way that seemingly unrelated input could contribute to the overload.

The most confusing part is that emotion itself can add to overload. Which means that anxiety can push me towards a meltdown, but when I meltdown it’s expressed through anxiety! So it’s a strange sort of feedback loop, a bit like the kind that happens in a panic attack, but a bit different.

Defining meltdowns

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.

Suppressed Meltdowns

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.