How to Stop From Spinning Into Meltdown

If we can catch the spark that ignites our mental wildfire, we can keep from burning ourselves
By Leo Babauta
Leo Babauta
Leo Babauta
Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of Zen Habits, a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net
August 16, 2021 Updated: August 16, 2021

If you tend to get overwhelmed by negative emotions and fall victim to rage, shutdown, or anxiety attacks, life can be difficult.

A small frustration or upset can escalate into an emotional reaction that ruins 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 having that anger heat to a 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 brings on an anxiety attack or causes you to shut down. This state may take hours to recover from.
  • Feeling badly about something you did or failed to do, you might spiral downward with self-loathing. You may drop into a state of discouragement about everything.

What can we do if we experience emotional overwhelm on a regular basis? 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 when we feel criticized.
  • Self-doubt when we don’t do as well as we’d like at something.

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 from what happens afterward:

  • We feel the tug and then we go into a defense mechanism of spinning one of our usual narratives;
  • The narrative might be about why the other person is wrong, why you are wrong, and how significant this situation is;
  • These thoughts increase the feeling which intensifies the thoughts, feeding a growing blaze until we’re in full-on disaster mode—the tiny spark is now a forest fire;
  • Then we might resort to various habits to cope with this disaster—yelling, throwing a tantrum, shutting down, hiding, comforting ourselves with food, distraction, or drugs.

Or perhaps we melt into a depressive funk.

Even this reaction isn’t that big of a deal. It’s just a passing emotional storm. We don’t need to beat ourselves up if we fall into these patterns. In fact, what we really need is more self-compassion.

How to Stop Before Meltdown Occurs

If you look at the process above, the spark that ignites the flame isn’t so hot or huge.

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

We can simply 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 with the rest of our day.

How do we catch it early? Practice. If we’re not well tuned in to ourselves, we may have to start developing this ability in reverse. 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. Pretend you’re helping a friend reflect.

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’re able to catch it early, we can pause. Breathe for a few moments. Notice the feeling as a sensation in the body. Be present with the sensation without fueling the narrative that intensifies the fire.

When we get caught up in that narrative (which we will), we can simply notice that happening. Notice what the narrative is, notice that it’s 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 a sensation.

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

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

Leo Babauta
Leo Babauta
Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of Zen Habits, a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net