The Complete Guide to Having a Successful Meltdown


Ever been somewhere where you had to sit for a long period of time– like the DMV or an airplane –and there was a toddler having a full out temper tantrum? In those situations, I always feel such empathy for the parent who has to manage the tantrum while dozens of angry and annoyed faces look on.

I recently took a 4 hour flight. I remember settling into the flight sitting across the aisle from a woman with 2 small children, both under the age of six. I watched the small family throughout the flight and mom came prepared! She had interesting little games to entertain them- toys, crayons, blocks. She had an Ipad queued up with their favorite videos and nursery rhymes. She had their favorite snacks ready. When she could tell that they were getting a little too restless, she took them both for a slow walk down the aisle and back. There was one moment where the younger of the 2 children cried, but mom was able to console her instantly and the whole incident last about 2 minutes.

This mom had a toolkit already arranged that prepared her for any emotional meltdown her kids may have had.

There are a few certainties in life, one of which is that everyday won’t be a good day.

In fact, some days will be downright terrible. We’ve all had days that make us wish that we can either curl up in a ball and stay in bed all day in sadness or flip over tables in anger or frustration.

And as adults, on our worst emotional days, we become both the toddler and parent rolled up in one. We experience the extreme distress of the toddler, but are also responsible for calming ourselves down while those around us might look on in annoyance or bewilderment and worry. But we can take a cue from the prepared mom from the plane and do some groundwork beforehand so that we minimize the intensity and length of your next meltdown.

Here are some tips for building your own effective coping toolkit:

1.Soothe your senses

As humans we are sensual creatures by design. Think of the things we do to soothe a crying baby– We sing to them, we rock them, we feed them, we hold them.  We change them. We put mobiles over their cribs. Basically, we involve all of their senses. And an ideal and effective coping tool kit for you will also have something to soothe each of your senses.

Sight— Pick out some movies, or TV shows, or books that can captivate your sight. For me, I will totally binge watch a whole season of Golden Girls when I’m feeling down. That ALWAYS puts me in a better mood. Perhaps you like the calming or energizing effect of art landscapes or your favorite movie, or the stand up of your favorite comedian. Seems like everyone loves funny cat Youtube videos. Whatever it is, pick something interesting for your eyes to delve into.

Hear— Have some relaxing music readily available for angry situations. And stimulating, upbeat music for when you’re down. There are some people who want to hear sad music when they are sad because they feel comforted that other people have experienced the same things they have. Whatever works for you. Just find something that doesn’t worsen your mood.  You might also find nature sounds to be helpful or even funny or inspiring speeches. Whatever you choose, make sure you have a variety of selections so that you have multiple options when you need it most.

Taste— They call it comfort food for a reason. There is something very soothing about eating the food that you grew up with in times of distress. And it doesn’t need to be excessively unhealthy to be comforting. Something as simple as a pudding cup or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, tomato soup, or roast chicken can trigger mood soothing pleasant childhood memories that help you evoke the feeling of being safe. Or maybe its a soothing cup of hot tea or cocoa. Involved your taste buds in some way to help soothe yourself.

Touch— Find activities that involve touching to help soothe you as well. You can wrap yourself up in a thick blanket, get a massage, hug someone, squeeze stress balls, or even rub a scarf across your skin. Take a long soothing bath, extra points if the tub has jets.  Get a foot rub or a manicure/pedicure.

Smell–Aromatherapy! Ok. I get kind of serious about this one. Essential oils are kind of a passion of mine. Do some research and discover some essential oils that are pleasing to you.  Some of my favorites- lemon oil, bergamot, jasmine, sandalwood. Place a few drops on a light bulb. The heat from the light will warm the oil, releasing its scent. Or if you’re not into essential oils, you can simply boil a small pot of water with a few cinnamon sticks to fill your home with an uplifting scent.


2. Identify your triggers

Everybody has a button. Probably multiple buttons. In other words, everyone has an issue that touches on some sort of emotion and will set us off. Your job is to identify what those issues are for you and come up with a diffusion plan beforehand.

For the longest time, for example,  the word “gentrification” would send me into an angry tirade and get me all riled up because it evoked all of my hot button issues- racism, privilege, poverty, injustice– all in one word. And all of these issues felt very personal to me. It took me awhile to realize that I had to prepare myself to engage in any discussion about the issue and I could only do so in certain circumstances. I was eventually able to move past this on my own self-growth journey. But knowing that this was a trigger for me, allowed me to better care for myself.

What are your triggers? What are the issues that send you into a tailspin? If you don’t already know them, spend some time thinking about them. Then think of ways you can handle when someone brings it up.

3. Feel the feelings

It’s ok to have intense emotions. Don’t avoid the feeling. It’s part of being human. Because strong emotions can be very unpleasant, we sometimes go out of our way to try not to not feel them. We try to numb ourselves through drugs, sex, food, and  other people so that we can distract ourselves. I’m sure you already know how counterproductive these numbing strategies are.

But part of a healthier mental health plan is to feel the emotions as they come. Think of bad days as weather. Rainy and grey days are natural and expected. And on rainy days, we simply observe the rain until we weather the storm. We don’t pretend it’s not raining, we do things to accommodate it. We stay inside more. We dress appropriately. We drive more carefully.  And when its over we simply go on. The same can be  true for how we deal with our feelings. We can acknowledge, observe, and feel them. Observe their patterns, adjust accordingly, and move on when the storm passes.

4. Write it out

I’ve been writing in these journals for years.

I am a great big ole advocate of journaling. I have been keeping at least one journal since I was about 11 years old. And it’s soooo helpful in keeping me grounded. I write about everything. And I keep more than one journal at a time. In one journal, I write about my goals and hopes for the future.  In another, I write about my anxieties and fears and create plans on how to work through them. And I keep yet another journal filled with things I’m grateful for, and when wonderful things when they happen to me. This system works for me. Find a system that works for you. Journaling can be a powerful tool to gain insight on thought patterns and behaviors.

5. Develop and Cultivate a Support Circle

You must have a support system. No one can do everything alone. Having people to talk to helps you tremendously. What that means is that you are responsible for cultivating honest authentic relationships with people so that they can support you when you need it most. Now, nobody likes being your personal venting soundboard 100% of the time. They will end up resenting you.  But reciprocal relationships that include other activities besides hosting pity parties, are ideal. If you do not currently have anyone in your support circle, work on building one organically. Join a group. Get involved in activities. Start talking to people at work. It may also be beneficial to seek out a therapist or counselor you can talk to and get supportive constructive feedback.

6. Release steam regularly

Most explosions and eruptions happen when pent up energy builds over time. This is another good reason why you shouldn’t ignore your feelings. Honor them and release them. Physical activity helps. Punch pillows.  Run. Do Yoga.  Get a hobby. Play an instrument. Choose activities that you can do on a regular basis that can use the pent up energy inside you and release it in safe, productive and effective ways.

OK! Now your coping toolkit is in place, you are fully equipped and prepared to have your next meltdown.

In the comments below, I’d love to hear your favorite strategies for calming yourself down when life hands you a bad day.



2 Replies to “The Complete Guide to Having a Successful Meltdown”

  1. What seems to trigger me at times, is when I feel as though I’m being treated unfairly or being taken advantage of and there’s nothing I can really do or say about it. I have learned that it is best to just step back from the situation, take a deep breath, think before I speak or act, or just walk away completely. Following these steps have calmed me down without exploding.

    When I also feel stressed from a long day at work, I usually like to take a long walk or jog in the park. I enjoy doing this because exercise always seems to relieves me of stress.

    I also like to keep a journal. I like the fact that you stated that it’s helpful to keep more than one journal. One journal would be for my hopes and dreams; a second journal would be for my disappointments in life; and a third journal would would be for those precious moments in my life. I really like the fact that you mentioned that you have a journal for things that you are grateful for, sometimes I forget ALL the .things I could be grateful for but ALWAYS remember the things that I don’t have.

    And last but not least, I truly need to find a support system. It’s not helpful to dump. all your UPS and DOWNS on one person. So my goal is to pursue a network of good friends. Thanks, this was very resourceful.

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