The Art of The “Good” Meltdown
Reader's Digest US|April 2021
Under stress from every front, we’re having more meltdowns. Here’s how to lose it the right way.
By Elizabeth Bernstein

Preston woodruff held it together for months during the pandemic—working in his garden and workshop, sharing meals with his daughter, and walking in the woods behind his home. Then a sneeze sent him over the edge.

Woodruff was sleeping soundly when he woke to an uncomfortable feeling in his nose. He reached for the box of tissues on his nightstand. None peeked up from the top. He tried and tried to dig one out. The entire wad remained tightly wound.

So Woodruff grabbed the box, crushed it in his hands, and flung it at the far wall of his bedroom. Alone in the dark, he slammed his head back on the pillow and swore.

“I momentarily lost it,” says Woodruff, a retired philosophy professor.

Welcome to the meltdown. Have you had one lately?

It’s what happens after you’ve held it together through a pandemic and a quarantine, working from home and homeschooling, civil unrest and the most divisive public discourse in several lifetimes—on top of the dishes and the laundry and your regular familial responsibilities. Then, when something seemingly small happens, suddenly you’re alone in your car screaming or sobbing to your dog about, well, everything.

People lost control of their emotions before this past year, of course. But we’ve been doing it a whole lot more because of our sustained levels of stress, anger, and fear. We’ve been overwhelmed by bad news, exhausted by the need to be ever-vigilant. It’s no wonder our fuses have been short.

Think you’ve never had a meltdown? Think again. Although we typically expect meltdowns to look like the adult version of a toddler’s tantrum—wailing, whining, whimpering— psychologists say they can manifest in different ways: crying, rage, silence, or an emotional shutdown. “Often, people don’t identify with the word meltdown because of the stigma of having a mental health crisis,” says Amanda Luterman, a licensed psychotherapist in Montreal. “They will just say they are having a really horrible day.”

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