Meltdowns – How to help when they “absolutely can’t take it any more”

Meltdowns – We’ve all had them. Some of us have had them more recently than others. Some might live with someone (grown up or little) who frequently melts down.

In psychology, we understand that melt downs are the letting out of built up emotions – frustration, excitement, disappointment, anger, despair, grief….

Strong feelings usually let us know that we have a big problem, or sometimes an accumulation of smaller problems, that need solving. Unresolved problems, worries, fear and distress can build to panic or rage when the brain is overwhelmed at the work it needs to do to coordinate all the information it is getting to come up with an action that will satisfy and solve.   Melt downs are certainly a letting go and letting go can have its advantages. With our cortex back in control after an emotional outburst, we can often think things through more clearly.

However, melt downs can come at a cost. Often, when we let our emotions take the front seat in our brain, we can do and say things that can hurt others physically or emotionally. So, after a meltdown, we can end up with more problems in addition to those that triggered the explosion in the first place.

There are some factors that we know are linked to a higher likelihood of meltdowns.

  • The fight and flight (or freeze) response – Our body is naturally wired to defend itself. If it feels threatened, brain functioning in the cortex or the thinking part of the brain, is compromised or completely by-passed in order to make quicker, life-saving reactions. If someone regularly interprets a situation or a problem as a threat to their own well being or life (or to the life of someone they care about) melt downs are more likely. Sadly, if someone has lived through multiple life-threatening events, their fight and flight response can be, understandably, twitchy.
  • Someone’s temperament – Temperament is a stable pattern of responding that we are born with. Our temperaments are short lived and can be altered with time and parenting. Children who are born with a ‘touchy’ or ‘anxious’ temperament, are more likely to melt down. In adults, we more readily refer to stable character and coping traits as personality. Some people with certain personalities find it very hard to cope without meltdowns
  • Mental health – People who have troubles sustaining attention or who have a depression or anxiety disorder may be more prone melt down. Substance use, be it coffee, alcohol or illicit drugs, will also make a person more prone to melt downs because it alters the amount of stimulation the brain experiences.
  • Difficulties being able to see other peoples’ points of view or think abstractly to solve problems – Children of a certain age are more prone to melt downs because they have not yet developed the capacity to take another’s perspective or to solve problems. As we get older and learn more, we get cleverer and more creative about coming up with solutions to problems. If, however, our brain activity is compromised (by injury, Autism, dementia, stroke), melt downs can become more frequent.
  • Inflexibility – Some people are quite rigid with their ideas and they have trouble changing them, even when they are presented with new ideas or evidence contrary to their opinions. Inflexible people find it hard to imagine. Like the ability to think abstractly, inflexibility can be associated with Autism Spectrum concern, a head injury, a cognitive disability or dementia.

Of course, if you know someone well, you will understand their triggers and the early warning signs that things are going to get messy. Be sure to use this information for good and not evil. Avoid unessential triggers where the avoidance does not affect their quality of life, but we do not want people who have melt downs to have their lives limited by too much avoidance.

If you see warning signs, act to de-escalate. Different de-escalations will work for different people so it’s wise to review all your past attempts. De-escalation will involve different strategies for different ages. For toddlers, it might be a noise or a shiny object, for older children it might involve humour.

The idea of de-escalation is to get the brain to focus on what it can do and offer it some really basic tasks rather than suggest that it do something that might just inflame emotions further. I like to tell people about the Three Things Thing.

The Three Things Thing involves asking the person to tell you three things that they can see right now, then three things that they can feel with their skin right now and then three different sounds that they can hear in their space right now. If they are a little calmer, but need more, try for another two of each thing, then another one. Your aim is to get their brains to a point where they no longer feel that they are out of control. Focusing on the very basic senses in the here and now can help. Try it with your friends and family! You can almost feel your brain changing down a few gears. Bonus points if you can get them to try to slow their breathing down, too!

Longer term, we need to help the person to prevent more meltdowns. This may include planning to gradually introduce a watered-down version of a troubling scenario, a step at a time, and help the person to stay relaxed and celebrate as they tolerate a little bit more of a feared or distressing situation at a time.   However, living or spending time with people who have meltdowns can be very wearying and you may wish to get some extra help

You as a parent, partner, teacher, case-manager or friend might have some really useful information, but a visit to a psychologist can help you and your partner-in-melt-downs to work on a comprehensive plan tailor made for their temperament/personality, mental health, history, triggers, thinking patterns and behaviours. The plan should also involve teaching the person other ways for dealing with strong emotions or new ways of thinking about problems.


The Chook Brain and the Cortex

The human brain never ceases to amaze me. It is truly an amazing piece of equipment made up of miniscule and precise parts that coordinate and move our body in ways we think about and ways we don’t even have to think about. You would think that having had a brain for as long as humans have existed, we might know a bit more about it by now. Technology and machines that go “ping” are helping us to advance our knowledge further and further each day. In the meantime, I find it easy to explain a lot of human behaviour by thinking about the brain being made up of sections or parts that each have a an important job to do when we react to things.

The brain seems to have some really quite primitive parts and some really extra clever bits. The primitive parts are the bits that look after our essential survival – things like breathing, eating, pooing and running away from dangerous things.

The Chook Brain

I have two backyard chickens, Daphne and Valma. Now, while I love them lots, I can acknowledge that Daphne and Valma are great at eating, pooing and laying eggs, but they are not great at more complex things like playing the piano, helping me with my homework problems or knowing the difference between my vegie seedlings and weeds. Compared to human brains, Daphne and Valma have very primitive brains. Daphne and Valma have chook brains that help them with the things they really need to know how to do – eat, poo, lay eggs and run away from danger – “Bercark!!!”

Humans have a part of their brain that is kind of like a chook brain. The chook brain part in our brain is really quite primitive and responsible for helping us with basic jobs and with keeping our bodies safe.

The Cortex

As well as a chook brain, we humans also have a part of the brain that allows us to do all those things that chicken cannot do – solve problems, think things through, focus on one thing for a long time and put off things that we want to do because there are other things we know are more important. This region of the brain is generally referred to as the human cortex.

It takes about 25 years for humans to have a fully grown cortex. When we are newborns, our brains are very primitive. When we are newborn we can poo and eat and startle if we get a fright. As we age and our brain grows, the cortex gets able to do more and more things.

Until we have a fully developed cortex part of our brain, we really need to borrow the cortex of safe and loving adults to help us make good decisions.

Reacting to Threats

The other amazing thing about our chook brain and cortex, is how they react to danger. If something is a really big threat, then our chook brain (the bit that looks after us if we need to run away) kicks in and takes over total control of our brain and body. If it’s a really big scary thing, our chook brain will get us ready to run away or to fight it off.

When you think about it, this is really important. If you are, say, walking through the jungle and see a tiger, this is not a good time to sit down to do homework, remember to get milk and bread on the way home, make and eat a sandwich, or to calculate the square root of a very large number. We don’t have time to use our cortex much.

When you see a tiger in your jungle, its a good time to run – and run fast. Our chook brain helps us do this. The cortex shuts down thinking and planning and our body gets ready to take care of us. Our heart goes faster to beat more blood to our big muscles, our breathing changes, our muscles get tense, our vision changes, our bellies can get uptight and sore (and our bowels can get loose), we get sweaty and all we can focus on is the scary thing. “Bercarck!!!”

After we have run from the tiger or have beaten it down with our bare hands and big oxygen-rich-blood-filled muscles, we can take a big breath out and sigh with relief. Our cortex can start to come back online. We can start to think, remember and make sense of more things. The process of moving from chook brain to cortex mode might take awhile and we can feel a bity wobbly while this happens and sometimes we can be on high alert for quite some time.

Tigers These Days

These days, not many of us come across actual tigers in jungles. Many of the things our brain thinks are scary are ideas or worries or memories that frighten us. We can go chook brained even just thinking about or imagining something that threaten us – an accident, a trauma, or something that causes death – bodily death or social death. We don’t run or take on too many tigers, instead we react in a range of different ways – maybe tantrums, panic or meltdown.

Calming the Chook Brain

The chook brain and the cortex have lots to answer for when it comes to managing anxiety, worries and trauma. They can also help us understand what we need to do to be able to stay calm and help children (who don’t yet have a fully grown cortex) to stay calm.

To get to know your chook brain a little better, think about the things that threaten you or that might be threatening your child. The threat may be real and current, a memory of a past threat (trauma) or a prediction about a threat that hasn’t even happened yet (worry).

Get to know the early warning signs that you (or your child) are about to go chook-brained. Do you notice a change in your heart rate, a change in your breathing, or tightness in your muscles? When you notice the warning signs, try to keep a hold of your cortex or step in to help your child use more cortex. Check in with your breathing and try to slow it and try to encourage your child to do the same. Try to stretch your muscles or check in with your thoughts to see if you really need to be so alarmed. Think, say and do things that will soothe you and soothe your child.

When your cortex comes back, have a talk about what happened and use your full brain to problem solve plan ahead for what you might do if the scary thing, thought or memory comes back again. Your child might like to draw or write a story or poem to help them.

Shona’s tips

Parents and Carers – In your role as the extra cortex for you child, be sure you try to model healthy ways of dealing with fears and worries. Your child will look to you when they are unsure and if you look calm, they will fell better. If you look like you are chook-brained……then there may be more than one of you going “Bercarck!!!”.

Teachers – Children who are chook-brained are not going to be able to concentrate on learning. Calmer classrooms is a great resource for assisting children who have been traumatised, but also can give you ideas that can calm many anxieties in children.

Psychologists and Helpers – Make sure you don’t make assumptions about what may soothe your client based on the things that soothe you – different things soothe different people differently. Encourage them to explore, experiment and gather the information for themselves. The Centre for Clinical Interventions has some useful workbooks for adult clients.

Kids – You might like to draw a picture about what you are like when you are chook-brained and where you notice it in your body. It might also be nice to keep a box full of things that make you feel relaxed and calm – things to cuddle, things that smell nice, nice music and sounds or pictures of people you love. Staying calm helps you keep your whole brain working together.