What Does A Meltdown Feel Like?

Young woman sitting near the window her head down

What is a meltdown?
Why do people have meltdowns?
Why do I have meltdowns?
What happens when a person has a meltdown?
Can adults have meltdowns?
How do I know if I’m having a meltdown?
What should I do if I’m having a meltdown?

Meltdowns are such a common experience but one that’s not well understood, and lots of people end up here after googling for answers to questions like these.

Understanding why and how meltdowns happen can have such a huge impact for the person experiencing them, so I’ve written several articles about them:

Today I thought it might be useful to try and write a personal account of what a meltdown feels like for me.

So here goes.

Note: Of course it goes without saying that because no two bodies work in exactly the same way, this is not a definitive description of how everybody experiences them.

What it feels like to have a meltdown

The beginning

My overall day-to-day ability to function is a balance between the input coming in and my ability to process it. This is the way it is for everybody, but the difference is that for people with sensory processing disorders and autism that balance can be a lot more delicate.

There are a lot of extra demands to deal with and stuff that drains your coping reserves, so some days there’s just not a lot left in the tank. On days like that it’s much easier to upset the balance – either there’s too much input flooding in for me to deal with or too little resources left to cope with the regular amount of input.

The events which tip the scales and disrupt my ability to function can differ from day to day, but usually include these kinds of things…

  • Too many people talking to me at once
  • Having attention on me
  • Someone talking to me while I’m trying to think or write something
  • Noise of a certain pitch which really hurts my ears
  • Needing to use the phone (which I find incredibly overwhelming)
  • The wind in my face
  • Someone reprimanding or confronting me
  • Feeling embarrassed, vulnerable or powerless
  • People around me not following the rules
  • Being frustrated from things not going right or my body letting me down
  • An unexpected change of plans
  • Someone I don’t know starting a conversation with me

Note that these things don’t cause the meltdown, they establish the right conditions which push me down the track towards one – by upsetting the balance between the amount of stuff that needs processing and my ability to cope with that.

At this beginning stage of the meltdown I can usually intervene and stop it from developing, but if I don’t (or can’t) do that then this simmering tension will start to build.

The build-up

During this stage, it feels like my heart rate is escalating and there’s pressure or buzzing in my ears building towards unbearable.

I usually start to react to any new input or demands with irritability – it’s a defence reaction, like a lion tamer cracking his whip at the approaching threat. I’ll stim if I can, by hand wrenching, pressing my thumb into my palms, biting my fingers, rubbing my face, clenching my fists, or tapping my hands together (connecting with my hands is an important part of it for me).

If I’m with someone I trust, I might try to communicate what’s going on but probably won’t make much sense. Language becomes a lot harder for me to process, both incoming and outgoing. I might lose my sense of humour.

At this point I’ll start looking for both an outlet to release the mounting tension and a stopper to prevent it from escalating. Later I’ll be focused only on retreat, but for now it’s about trying to manage it, trying to attack it, trying to build fences and walls to keep everything up and out.

If none of that works or I haven’t been able to take evasive action, the meltdown moves on to the next phase.

The peak

Now it feels like the walls of sand start collapsing inwards and every sense becomes acute, especially hearing. My ears start to hurt immensely. Any new input at all (even something that I can usually deal with) is batted away as I try to escape and find mental breathing space.

I’ll attempt to physically retreat (by looking away, moving away, putting sunglasses on) or verbally retreat (by arguing, changing the topic, ending the conversation).

This is getting close to the point of no return, and short of completely shutting out all input there’s very little that will stop the meltdown from progressing.

The ‘explosion’

If none of these evasive actions have worked and I can’t escape the situation or overload, my brain explodes into a cacophony of noise and sensation.

Everything grinds to a halt (shutdown) or explodes into action (meltdown). I will either retreat completely (all stimming, language and functioning stops) – or I will yell, storm off or slam something. I’ll be trying hard to get relief but none of it is actually relieving, because nothing feels good at this point.

On the outside it might look like a sudden explosion, but it’s actually the final few minutes of a process that may have taken hours or even days to develop.

The resolution

Afterwards, when the chaos is subsiding, I’m usually overwhelmed with a flood of emotion. I might cry or feel shivery, and there’s an immense feeling of fatigue. Waves of embarrassment and regret crash over me, and sometimes anger or disappointment (because meltdowns really suck).

All of this can be enough to set off another meltdown, and this vulnerable stage can last for the next few hours and sometimes even all day.

Some tricks I’ve learned to help me cope

Over the years as I’ve learned more about meltdowns I’ve become much better at managing them. The most important thing was learning what meltdowns look like for me – how to recognize when I might be on the road to having one, what works to avert them and how best to cope if I can’t do that.

Understanding it all and creating effective escape routes for myself has made a very big difference in the number and intensity of the meltdowns I experience.

I can’t overestimate how important this knowledge has been for me. It’s something that I wish I’d known about much earlier in my life, as I wrote in this article urging people to teach kids about meltdowns…

Without knowledge of my own limits, I wasn’t able to recognize when I was reaching overload or find the exit strategies that would’ve prevented the meltdowns. I wasn’t able to plan ways to cope or reduce their intensity. Without an explanation for my reactions or the words to explain them to others, I accepted the only reasons given to me – that I was angry, intolerant, rude or stubborn. This fallout – the confusion, helplessness and negative self-image – is a big part of the long-term cost of meltdowns.

It’s also taken me a while to learn how to intervene at the earliest point possible, which is critical because the longer the meltdown is allowed to progress the harder it will be to stop.

I’ve needed to become more proactive in asking for what I need (which is very hard for me to do), and learning to not push myself to stay in overwhelming situations:

  • Leaving a party if I’m overloaded
  • Not trying to read when the kids are talking to me
  • Wearing earphones at the supermarket

The bottom line

There’s still a huge stigma and lack of awareness about what meltdowns are, and the fact that they can and do happen to adults as well as children. I hope that by sharing personal accounts like these it can help to encourage a greater understanding about what it feels like to experience one.

Last updated 22 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.