Stories and inspiration about living beyond pain and trauma
Rainbow over hill
7 May 2020

Panic pandemic – 8 simple steps to support a loved one through a meltdown

Posted ByBrenda Wille

Here we are, week X (who remembers?!) in a nationwide lockdown, necessitated by the global pandemic that is COVID-19. This extraordinary situation is responsible for so much fear, uncertainty and anxiety amongst all of us – no-one is immune to the effects of this virus sweeping the world. Emotionally, some of us may navigate this challenging time well while others may be harder hit.

I’ve personally noticed a sense of unease bubbling in me at times since the start of lockdown and I’ve heard many others expressing similar sentiments. Although I’m as susceptible to emotional turmoil as the next person, I’m grateful that my professional and personal life experience has equipped me with many tools that help me remain calm(er!) in times of adversity.

Our current crisis will mean many people may experience a meltdown or two. This got me thinking (thank you, isolation, for all this thinking time!) how handy it would be to share some of these tools that can help you assist a loved one who experiences an emotional meltdown.

What is a meltdown?

A meltdown means a big, emotional outburst. It comes from feeling so overwhelmed with stress that it significantly affects behaviour. Sometimes our feelings seem so big and strange that they simmer away inside as we’re not sure what to do with them. Left to simmer, they can leap out of us and erupt in upsetting episodes that may include crying, shouting, out-of-character reactions, withdrawal, impatience – even a wicked adult-style tantrum.

Right now, triggers for a meltdown are rife. We’ve got information overload, job losses, fear, money worries, death, grief, as well as taking on too much (eg same workload but from home while schooling the kids) all the while not knowing when this will end. It’s no wonder many of us are feeling emotionally fragile.

For those of you who want to know how to support the people in your life who’re struggling with big emotions, I’ve suggested 8 steps that might help you get a friend or loved one through a meltdown. Of course, these suggestions may not work for everyone – I invite you to use what feels appropriate to you and your situation and ignore anything that doesn’t resonate.

1. Keep your cool

Even though these tips focus on supporting another, it’s paramount that first and foremost you look after yourself. While you may feel shocked and unprepared for the moment of meltdown, it’s so important that you remain as calm as you can.

Sounds simple, right? Errr… no. In the eye of a ‘meltdown’, your own nervous system will likely want to freak out too. That’s not gonna be helpful, so let’s explore a few simple ways to cultivate calm – quickly!

Tune into your breath – Simply noticing your breath can be deeply calming. Once that’s established, observe the duration of your breath. When you’re ready to go a little further, try matching the length of the inhale to the length of the exhale for a few rounds of breath. (It can be useful here to count how long each inhale and exhale are.)

Over the next few rounds of breath, aim to increase the length of the exhale to double the length of the inhale (but without forcing or rushing things). Focusing on the breath like this helps the whole nervous system slow down, creating calm and presence.

Find your feet – You can ground yourself and your emotions by literally tuning into the sensation of your feet on the ground. If you’re not standing, simply try paying attention to your toes.

Use your five senses – tuning into our senses can be a very effective way of coming back to the present moment, in or out of a meltdown. You may know that one or the other sense is particularly useful for you – use whatever you know helps you feel grounded and present.

Cultivating a calm, centred state definitely gets easier with practice. If you know someone who’s going to need frequent support from you, take some time to figure out which grounding practices work best for you and practice these techniques when you’re not in the heat of a moment. Not only will you be better able to support others, your nervous system will feel a whole lot better for it too!

2. Go low, slow and gentle

When you’re with someone who’s freaking out, remember they’re not in control of their behaviour. During a meltdown, the reptilian part of the brain responsible for responding to threat hijacks the show – and wants the starring role, too!

Mid-meltdown, it’s not physiologically possible for the sufferer to act calmly, logically or reasonably, even though they may be quite capable of doing so in regular circumstances.

Their nervous system will pick up cues from yours. By breathing calmly, speaking gentle words of reassurance in a low voice, with minimal body movement, you can show their nervous system that right now it’s safe, and that it’s ok to be experiencing strong emotions.

3: Validate with words

Sometimes, your physical presence may be enough support for the distressed person. Other times, speaking words of validation such as ‘It’s ok, I’m here for you right now.’ Or ‘I can see this is really hard for you.’ can be extremely reassuring.

Wherever possible, speak in a soft, gentle voice and aim to be at eye level with them.

4: Ask before touch

You may have an overwhelming desire to hug the person who’s struggling or to touch them in some way. For many people in an overwhelmed state, touch, particularly without permission, can add more fuel to the fire.

Instead, stop and notice your desire to reach out. Who will it truly benefit – you or them?

If you’re sure your intentions are all about them and not you, ask permission first. It may be as simple as saying; ‘I’m noticing that I’d like to hug you right now. Would that be okay for you? ’ Wait for permission before you act. If none is forthcoming, leave the option available. Sometimes it takes people a while to be ready to receive touch – or not.

It may be that you can do this in smaller ways than an actual hug… you might offer to sit next to them with an arm or leg or even a foot gently touching theirs. You may even like to try sitting back to back with them. It’s ok to offer a few options, and don’t be offended if all are refused! Remember this is about you offering support, not getting your own needs met (for now).

5: Let them lead the way

When supporting a meltdown, the urge to ‘fix’ it can mean you forget to ask your loved one what will help them feel calmer again. Some people will be able to communicate exactly what would be helpful even when they’re melting down – so remember to ask!

If they don’t know what they need or can’t answer immediately, offer a limited menu of options. You’ll find some resources in a future post, but in the heat of the moment, simply offering a glass of water or a blanket may do the trick.

If you need to leave the room to grab a requested item, let them know that’s what you’re doing, and that you’ll be right back.

6: Allow the meltdown to settle – gradually

When someone has been really upset, recovery may happen in layers. You might notice their breathing steadies or that the loud, wracking sobs have been replaced by quieter, gently rolling tears. These can be signs that their nervous system is settling – but it doesn’t mean they’re ready for you to leave just yet.

Once you notice this natural settling process, you may like to get them moving. Perhaps ask if they want to help you make a cup of tea or get a drink. Keep observing and checking in with what’s happening with them – and continue to ask what they need.

You don’t have to talk about what’s happened unless you’re both comfortable doing so. As they settle, they may be more able to discuss the distress with you, but sometimes that kind of processing takes a while.

7: Get them into their body

Words aren’t always appropriate – or necessary – even after someone has calmed down. It may be far more helpful to use body-based tools as part of the settling process. Get him/her to notice their hands and feet. Tuning into the feeling of air on the skin, or pressure of clothing or the ground beneath the feet can all help to bring people back to the present.

8: Stay available

After the emotional storm of a meltdown, it can be challenging for your loved one to rejoin the world. Stay available until the dust settles. He or she may feel shame and embarrassment over things that were said and done in the heat of the moment. While repair may be needed with those who’ve been at the receiving end of heated words, the immediate aftermath is probably not the right time to be worrying about that. Reassure them that this is the case.

You’ve got this

There are many ways to offer constructive support to a friend or loved one through a meltdown. The suggestions here constitute a few ‘crisis first aid’ ideas to get you started so you can confidently help out in a moment of panic. Remember, the best you can do is the best you can do – even the smallest actions can have big impacts in highly charged situations.

Take good care of you

When the storm has passed and emotions have settled, please remember to take care of you. It might not have been your storm, but chances are you’ll feel the ripple effects of the meltdown. Please don’t underestimate the importance of doing things that help you feel calmer and more settled too.

Take a few quiet moments to tune into your inner wisdom and ask what you need to recalibrate. Perhaps a walk, a cuppa or a chat with a trusted friend. Looking after YOU is an important part of the process.

Isolated outbursts are one thing, regular meltdowns may be signs of a more significant problem that needs serious intervention. Please note the suggestions here are not meant to constitute professional therapeutic advice. If you or someone you know has regular emotional outbursts, please get professional help. I’m happy to chat to see if my professional tools and experience can help. This could involve sharing some easy-to-learn (and implement) techniques or referring counsellors and therapists who are ideally suited for significant psychological work. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to learn more about making it through emotional outbursts.