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Meltdowns, Part 2: Why Do Meltdowns Happen?

Meltdowns are a common and deeply misunderstood human behavior. We’re addressing meltdowns over a series of posts, to try to lend some clarity to these events, explain what causes them, and help minimize their impact.

You can’t prevent something you don’t understand. So understanding the nature of meltdowns and their causes is essential to managing them.

Meltdowns are Biologically Based

To understand the cause of meltdowns, you have to understand some basic neuroscience. And it’s useful in this case to think about the brain in 2 parts that we’ll call the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain.

The upstairs brain is the neocortex. It’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for all of the most human parts of us. It makes decisions, forms and stores memories, allows us to access our memories, controls emotions, produces both empathy and self-awareness, allows us to focus, and controls bodily movements. The upstairs brain is a busy place.

The downstairs brain is the limbic system and reptilian complex. The downstairs brain manages bodily functions, like eating, sleeping, and excretion. It’s also responsible for emotional reactions and our flight-or-flight response.

Usually, the upstairs brain is driving. When the upstairs brain is in the driver’s seat, the downstairs brain is turned on, but just runs in the background and occasionally sends some signals upstairs to remind us to do things like eating and sleep. But under stress, the downstairs brain can take over, and then it’s a whole different ballgame.

Under stress, the downstairs brain starts sending more, louder signals upstairs demanding attention. If it’s ignored, the signals grow in frequency and volume. And eventually, the downstairs brain kicks the upstairs brain out of the driver’s seat. When that happens, we lose most of the connections with the information stored upstairs. So, when the downstairs brain is in charge, we have almost no access to stored memories and may not make new ones. We lose empathy and self-awareness. Emotional and physical control is gone as well.

Downstairs is Driving

The downstairs brain takes over when you are overwhelmed, either in a sensory or emotional sense. Fatigue, hunger, thirst, pain, or illness will absolutely cause the downstairs brain to increase its signaling. But sensory or emotional overload, especially when so severe that it is perceived as a threat, will absolutely cause the downstairs brain to take over. It’s a matter of survival. And that’s when meltdowns happen.

Think of a meltdown as a survival mechanism. It serves a purpose – to drive away anything that’s threatening the security and safety of that person. It’s a fight-or-flight response. There’s nothing reasonable or rational about it. And it’s absolutely not a state of self-control.

Now that you know what a meltdown is, we’ll talk about how to manage meltdowns. And if you want to do more reading, I recommend these sources:

Beyond Behaviors by Mona Delahooke, PhD

Self Reg by Dr. Stuart Shanker

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