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A therapist’s top 5 tips to cope with out-of-nowhere emotional meltdowns

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisMay 15, 2020

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Amid worries, anxieties, and perhaps big life adjustments as a result of the pandemic, your emotions may be working in overdrive and in unpredictable directions. For instance, perhaps you’re brave-faced but somber while reading distressing headlines and canceling vacations, but then something happens—something minuscule, something even dumb. Suddenly, you’re having an emotional meltdown in your living room because, say, your favorite sushi spot isn’t on GrubHub. You rationally understand that this issue is not worth getting so upset about, and yet, you can’t seem to get it together—but why?

Well, according to one psychotherapist, this reaction of misdirecting emotions makes total sense right now. “Life is generally stressful, but add in working from home, 24/7 cohabitation, and a pandemic, and emotions can be at an all time high,” says Jennifer Teplin, LCSW. “So often when we have an exaggerated emotion or reaction about a small item, it’s because we’re having a buildup of emotions.”

“When you find yourself bursting over a small thing, reflect on what else might be upsetting you, because we’re rarely feeling one thing in isolation.” —psychotherapist Jennifer Teplin, LCSW

While it may make sense that an unreleased buildup of emotions will burst through in fits of misguided hysterics, we can all certainly still challenge ourselves to proactively work on the root issues. The first step in conquering that challenge is to simply identify that issue. “When you find yourself bursting in an unexpected moment over a small thing, I’d challenge you to reflect on what else might be upsetting you, because we’re rarely feeling one thing in isolation,” says Teplin.

So I, for one, realize, that when my dad suggests I don’t have mac and cheese for lunch one day and I burst into to tears, I’m not actually sobbing over the white-cheddar shells. Rather, I’m stomping my feet about the sense of lost agency I feel to make choices that provide me with comfort. My mac and cheese is a symbol of freedom, happiness, and normalcy that I’m clinging to, and being denied it feels as though pandemic limitations have won and I should just give up. In short, to quote Vanderpump Rules, my real issue is “not about the pasta.”

After identifying the root issue at play that’s sparking a sudden emotional meltdown, Teplin has a few coping strategies you can use to soothe yourself. Check them out below.

5 tips to cope with an out-of-nowhere emotional meltdown, from a psychotherapist.

1. Be kind to yourself

Nearly everyone is going through their own version of a rough time now, so allow yourself the compassion you’d offer to others. You, too, deserve a break. “Remember, this is either about something bigger, or it’s a combination of elements that is causing this reaction,” says Teplin.

2. Try not to find the exact reason for your emotional meltdown

If you find yourself over-intellectualizing, trying to find the precise reason why you’re having an emotional meltdown, you’re likely to put additional pressure on yourself to understand the ins and out of your feelings when you’re in the middle of them. This can lead to additional stress, because, Teplin says, sometimes it isn’t a single root issue sparking your meltdown so much as a jumble of disappointments that have led to this moment. And when you’re in the middle of that moment, seeing the situation objectively isn’t a burden you need to put on yourself.

3. Express your emotions if you have the space to do so

“Allow yourself to feel sad. There’s nothing wrong with crying or yelling,” Teplin says.

And this is true even for small, seemingly insignificant things. In fact, letting the tears flow can actually help you relieve stress in the long run. Just try not to project your anger on your quarantine cohabitants.

4. Practice purge writing when something sets you off

“Journal about what you’re feeling—it can be awesome to let it all out,” says Teplin. To practice this type of purge writing, get out a blank piece of paper, and unleash every detail about how you’re feeling, what worries you, and what makes you feel angry—regardless of whether you can classify these thoughts as rational or not.

If you feel like, in a given moment, the world is ending because you added too much milk to the pot of mac and cheese, get your thought out there, then put away the paper. You may even laugh about it later.

5. Reframe the experience with someone who loves you

“Call a friend and share the wild experience you’re having,” Teplin says. “Making fun of ourselves is sometimes amazing medicine.”

For instance, my friend Amber takes mac and cheese as seriously as I do. But when I asked her what would happen if stores ran out of stock, I couldn’t not burst out laughing at her deadpan reply of “don’t even say that.” Her empathy pains are appreciated, but using comedic framing about any issue—surface-level or root—can actually help you become more resilient.

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