How to Stop From Spinning Into Meltdown

By Leo Babauta

If you’re someone who tends spin out into a meltdown, rage, shutdown, or anxiety attack, things can be really difficult.

A small frustration or fear can be turned into something huge, and ruin your entire day.

If this is you, know that you’re not alone. This happens to a lot of people, in a variety of ways:

  • Getting frustrated with someone and then turning that into anger that can rage or simmer all day, putting you in a foul mood.
  • Feeling fear or hurt, you might get caught up in a mental narrative that causes you to have an anxiety attack or shut down, that might take you hours to recover from.
  • Feeling bad about something you did or failed to do, you might start spinning into feeling really bad about yourself, and drop into a state of discouragement about everything.

What can we do if this is happening? Let’s take a look at what’s going on, and then look at some ideas for what we might do.

How We Spin into Disaster Mode

The initial difficulty that we encounter is rarely a major disaster — it’s usually just a feeling of uncertainty or fear:

  • Frustration when someone behaves in a way we don’t like.
  • Fear and hurt we feel when we’re criticized.
  • Self-doubt when we don’t do as well as we’d like at something (procrastination, for example).

This initial feeling of fear, uncertainty or frustration isn’t necessarily a problem … it’s just a feeling. It’s an initial tug at our hearts.

The real difficulty comes not from this intial tug or poke at the heart … it comes from what happens afterward:

  1. We feel the tug or poke at our heart, and then we go into a defense mechanism of spinning one of our usual narratives.
  2. The narrative might be about why the other person is wrong, why you are wrong, and how much of a huge deal this is.
  3. This continues in a growing blaze until we’re in full-on disaster mode — we’ve gone from a tiny spark to full forest fire.
  4. Then we might have other things we do to cope with this disaster — yelling, throwing a tantrum, shutting down, hiding, comforting ourselves with food or web browsing or drugs or whatever your usual go-to coping mechanism is, or going into a depressive funk.

Even this is not that big of a deal. It’s just a passing storm. We don’t need to beat ourselves up if this is happening — in fact, what is needed is more love.

How to Stop Before Meltdown Occurs

If you look at the process above, the first step in the process is not a big deal. It’s just a tug or poke at our heart, a little spark of uncertainty or fear.

The trick is to catch it early — if we can catch it while it’s still just a spark, and hasn’t been turned into a forest fire, it’s much more manageable.

We can simple give ourselves some space to feel fear and uncertainty, or frustration, or whatever the feeling might be. We can take a few breaths. Give ourselves some compassion. And then let go and move on to the rest of our day.

How do we catch it early? Practice! We notice when there’s a full forest fire, and then reflect on when it was just a spark. At what point might we have caught it earlier? We can do this reflection without beating ourselves up, just noticing.

Then slowly, with this kind of practice, we might be able to notice in the moment when it’s just a spark. “Ooh, that hurt!” Or, “Yowza, that feels frustrating!” Catch it in the moment, before we’ve doused it with gasoline.

When we are able to catch it early, we can pause. Breathe for a few moments. Notice the feeling, as sensation in the body. Be present with the sensation, without getting caught up in the narrative that adds fuel to the fire.

When we get caught up in that narrative (which we will), we can simply notice that. Notice what the narrative is, notice that it is unhelpful (it only makes things worse), and see if you can turn from the narrative back to the sensation in the body. Let yourself feel this emotion as sensation.

From here, you can give yourself some compassion, some love. Take care of yourself, as you feel this uncertainty, fear, frustration.

Catch it early enough, with practice, and we can take care of the poke at our hearts with compassion and grace.

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