Spectrum: Meltdowns and Shutdowns

A brain with abundant synapses takes in abundant stimulation–sometimes, more than can be easily processed. When a brain receives more input than it can process, chances are, it will go into meltdown or shutdown in an attempt to reestablish balance.

An early childhood memory: I’m sitting in the back of our red VW van when my mom and I are picking up my dad after his day teaching, and I am gulping air and shaking in the aftermath of crying. In between the painful gasps, I am aware of an exquisite feeling of relief and clarity. Even the tenderness of the nerves in my skin feels exquisite. I’ve just had a meltdown, and now, my mental processes have re-regulated. I’m calm, though quivery, and by the time my dad opens the car door, I greet him with smiles. Everything will be OK.

My mom describes me as a cheerful and happy child, so I guess that meltdowns weren’t too frequent during early childhood, perhaps happening between one and six times a year. That’s about the frequency with which I experience them as an adult, also.

While they aren’t comfortable, meltdowns, for me, at least, bring relief, so once I began to understand that they are part of my self-regulatory processing, I’ve stopped dreading or trying to prevent them. In fact, I now intentionally engage in them when I feel that need for release and rebalance.

For many decades of my adult life, I thought that, if I was crying, it must mean that I was sad or distressed, and if I were sad or distressed, there must be something wrong with my life. But as I’ve come to identify what’s really happening, I’ve learned that my life can be going really well–I can be in the right relationship, living in the right place, having a successful career, managing all the details and responsibilities of taking care of a home, myself, and a job–and I can still have meltdowns. A meltdown simply indicates that I have exceeded my capacity for processing.

I have learned to have meltdowns in private, for they make others uncomfortable or distressed, and I’ve learned to have them as soon as I can recognize the need, rather than holding them off, for that lessens their intensity and allows me to restore internal balance more quickly.

This past week, I experienced two mini-meltdowns, as a result of having attended the employee recognition celebration I wrote about a few posts ago; the social activity and demands of that event overextended my processing capacity. These mini-meltdowns are what I’ve come to call “mindful meltdowns.” I engage in them intentionally and with mindful awareness. With this approach, a mini-meltdown is no more painful than a sneeze, and the resulting relief afterwards is just as sweet as the relief after a sneezing fit. Some tears, some sobs, some deep breaths, some quiet moments afterwards, and the excess energy and input is released. My emotions and mental processes free up, and I can feel joy again. The entire process can be as quick as five minutes.

A mini-meltdown, engaged in with mindful attention, is much better to me than a shutdown.

I also experienced a shutdown this week. On Monday morning, although I’d had a fairly restful weekend and had slept an extra hour the night before, I woke with a sluggish cotton mind, through and through, without a spark of feeling, emotion, or energy. It felt like every synapse had gone dark. I moved mindfully through our morning routine, which is structured in such a way as to provide a healthy and healing container in which to start the day: the preparation and eating of a healthy breakfast; time to read and play brain-training games; time in the garden; time to play cello.

But as I drove into the office, I could feel that something was not right in my brain. It took courage and resilience to walk through the parking lot and into the office, when all I wanted to do was sit in the car with eyes closed, avoiding everyone and everything, and I felt relief when the usual people who greet me to engage in morning conversation were not there. By the time I took my lunch break, I knew I had to be in nature, in a spot as private as possible. We have some dense shrubs and wildflowers in a lot at the edge of the parking lot, so sitting there, in the bushes, hidden from all others, I was able to breathe and to get my mind unstuck enough that I could engage in an intentional mini-meltdown and release all the residual unprocessed input and energy from that social event five days before.

Yes, it does take that much out of me to be part of large groups, even when the event goes well, even when I enjoy myself, and even when everything seems smooth. My mind has too much to process, and sometimes, as in this case, certain inputs get stuck–that’s when the shut-down happens.

When I woke up on Monday morning with cotton-brain, I felt a brief flash of comfort: this was a familiar feeling to me. In fact, I spent much of my childhood in some degree of shutdown. After every mother-daughter tea, every award ceremony, every piano recital, many noisy classroom days, every family trip to the city, shut-down was my consequence.

By the time I was seven, I had been socialized to believe that crying, meltdowns, and any type of emotional outburst, noise, or unconstrained movements, were unacceptable. Good girls kept hands-in-pockets, didn’t swing their arms or twist or spin, didn’t laugh in outbursts, and certainly didn’t cry or have tantrums. And never got mad. If I was going claim my spot in the family, and be loved the way I wanted to be, I believed that I had to be a good girl. I began to repress meltdowns, and as a result, I experienced shutdowns.

I grew up in an active family, with an older sister and brother who were (and are) gifted, creative, athletic, social, and engaged. When I was seven through the time when my older siblings left home six years later, we were rarely home on weekends. Our parents took us on family outings, camping, hiking, skiing, canoeing (all of which I loved) or to the Bay Area for festivals, concerts, plays, art shows, and trips to museums (which I loved in theory–and still love in memory–but not so much in practice). My parents wanted us to have a culturally rich upbringing–and we did. We did, at the cost of needed downtime.

Combine with that stimulating upbringing, a brother who teased, punched, tickled, poked, slapped, and expressed himself sarcastically, a school life with noisy classrooms and no lasting friendships I could count on, and the demands and input were often more than I could handle. This is why, when I felt the sensations of shutdown the other morning, it felt familiar to me.

During the past few decades as an adult, my mini-meltdowns have been more frequent than shutdowns, fortunately, but previously, especially when we lived in the overstimulating city of Seattle or when I was teaching full-time, shutdowns were common enough. Now that I reflect on it, during my Seattle and full-time teaching years, shutdowns alternating with hypomanic bliss were my regular states of being.

My best way to find relief from shutdowns is to spend time in nature. Fortunately, during the childhood years when shutdowns happened regularly to me, we lived in a home with a wild creek behind the house, a giant poplar and oak tree in our back yard, and wooded and grassy hills across the lane. My happiest childhood moments happened when I was alone, under the broad California sky, halfway to the top of an oak, or hidden under a scrub of wild broom. The shining leaves, the flit of bird wing, the song of mockingbirds, the soaring of a red-tailed hawk, the silence beneath the leaves’ whispers–these brought my comfort. I still turn to solitude in nature when I need to find my way out of and recover from a shutdown, and wherever I’ve lived or worked, I’ve always scouted out a wild pocket where I could find sanctuary and relief.

Of course, we want to avoid meltdowns and shutdowns, when possible. They don’t feel good; they are stress responses, and reaching that level of stress isn’t good for us. In my next post, I’ll share some of my strategies for self-care to keep meltdowns and shutdowns from happening, as much as possible. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that, even when we’re doing everything right, even when our lives are really good and everything is fine, the input we receive can still sometimes exceed our capacity for processing.

Sitting in the garden this morning, with white sunlight dancing on the edges of thousands of leaves, a hummingbird hovering in and out of the periphery, a mockingbird singing fluted songs, and the warm, warm sun cradling my shoulders, I called back to all the snipped-off versions of myself who had cried when I couldn’t understand why I was crying, to all the ignored shutdown mirrors of me, who I’d looked at with confusion–what is wrong with you to feel depressed when your life is so good?–I pulled back to me all the meltdown, shutdown Cathys that I didn’t know how to fit into my life or myself. They rushed back, relaxing under the comforting blanket of sun wrapped around our shoulders, my shoulders. They came back to me, not as parts that were broken or sick or lacking or unacceptable–they came back as parts of me that had been overwhelmed by too much input for the abundant synapses in my brain. And in the quiet busy morning of my garden, we all came together into me.

Want to learn more?
A really great article about meltdowns and shutdowns by Rachel Schneider, a counselor with Sensory Processing Disorder, 5 Things I Want to Know about Sensory Shutdown.
And, of course, from the lovely and brilliant Amythest Schaber in her “Ask an Autistic” series: What are Autistic Shutdowns?

<< Previous | Next >>