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Anatomy of a Good Breakdown

By Julie Ann Cairns | Abundance

May 30

Can you relate to this? Sometimes a wave of emotion hits me, seemingly out of nowhere, and all of a sudden it’s ON and I’m having a little breakdown. 

It always comes as kind of a shock whenever it happens. And even though it’s happened quite a lot over the years… I’m still surprised. Every. Single. Time.

For me, it can happen due to some random PTSD trigger. Or, there are also certain times of the year that are tricky for me – like Christmas (don’t ask) or the anniversary of my Dad’s death. 

You might ask: have you tried therapy? And yes, I have. Lots of different kinds. I’ve come to understand that PTSD can be quite resistant to traditional therapy. It’s possible that it’s more akin to a neurological event. 

I continue to look at treatments that might work (right now I’m looking into something called EMDR which seems to address the neurological associations of traumatic events). But the reality is that I still have episodes of being triggered from time to time. 

I don’t seem to have much control over why this happens, but I do think I’ve learned a thing or two after all this time about having a good breakdown.

In my experience, a good breakdown involves a healthy release of pent up energy and emotion. 

If I don’t fully release the stuck energy, then it can hang around and block my access to more freedom, joy and abundance in my life. But if I do fully release it by having a “good” breakdown, that often leads to a subsequent breakthrough to the next level of awesomeness in my life. 

That’s why a good breakdown can be a very helpful and healing thing.

So let me share my 5 Step Anatomy of a Good Breakdown with you, in case you find it helpful.

1 – Permission to Feel

First, I let myself really feel my feelings. I dive in. 

This can be scary sometimes. I mean, will I come back out? 

These days I do have faith that I will. It’s not my first rodeo. But safety is important, and I never want to underestimate the power of the beast I’m riding in this rodeo… So just in case, I have a plan about what I’ll do if things get too dark. I have a good therapist friend on speed dial.

Here’s what diving in looks like for me: during a recent meltdown I felt hot tears coming on and I knew I was going to need more than a moment… so I went straight home, cancelled everything for the day, got into my jammies, crawled into bed and sobbed my little heart out. 

It’s interesting what happened when I let myself sink into that release. I felt an actual physical pain in the back of my heart, and as I cried and cried it began to ease. I could feel the energy releasing and escaping out from my back as I fully expressed it.

Now here’s the thing about that process: I’ve found it’s important to allow the energy to fully express and then let it go. 

(Without MAKING it go. Letting go, is not making go.) 

When I reject my feelings, that’s when I block up the works. That’s when I get a kind of emotional constipation. 

When I want the feelings to stop, or go away, or change… then I’m not allowing them to BE. I’m either judging the feelings as ‘bad’ or I’m judging myself in some way for having them. 

Or, sometimes, I’m telling those feelings “Not now, okay? This isn’t a convenient moment!” And while that may be true at times, more and more these days I try to honour my feelings and if at all possible I’ll move things around to make way for them. Because, I don’t really want emotional constipation. It affects everything, and not in a good way.

So here’s the paradox about emotional release: to allow the feelings to BE, to let them release if they want to release… but at the same time to not require that they go anywhere. 

Being willing to feel them, and acknowledge them, for as long as they need to be felt and acknowledged. If you can, allow that to happen without trying to hurry it along.

2 – Judgment Free Zone

I no longer judge myself for being messy. Because you know what? I’m human. To be human is to feel stuff. Deeply, sometimes. And that can be messy.

Here’s another tip: try not to judge or blame others for whatever it is that’s been triggered in you. Feel the feeling, express the feeling, but don’t dive into the ‘meaning’ too much. We love to ascribe meaning to things. We’re story-driven beings. But in this kind of situation that doesn’t do us any favours.

Diving into the story, running the story around and around, and thinking about apportioning blame, shame or guilt… well, in my experience, that just locks the energy in place. It’s the opposite of letting go.

Forgiveness can be hard, for sure. I would never trivialize just how hard it can be. But ultimately it frees the forgiver the most. So that’s why it’s worth it.

If you’re not sure about how to fully feel your feelings, and let them release without forcing them, judging them, or getting caught up in the story… I talk about that in more depth in my blog called The Subtle Art of Surfacing.

3 – Ask for Support

This step is only recommended if you have people in your life that will allow you to be messy without judging you, or trying to fix you. 

(If you don’t have any people like that in your life, look for some before the messiness happens! Also, it’s possible to train people about how this works by modelling empathetic, non-judgmental behaviour for them.)

When I was having my latest meltdown, I told my daughter Chantal and co-parent Savannah what was happening with me. There was a lot of snot and tears involved in my communication but I got the message across okay, I think. 

I basically said something like this (though nowhere near as concisely): 

“I can’t be there for anyone but myself today. So if you two could sort out your own dinner, pack Chantal’s lunch for tomorrow and let me stay in my room and cry… that would be great. 

Also, if you want to bring me some food or cups of tea from time to time, that would be lovely too. 

Don’t worry, neither of you have done anything to upset me and I’m sure I’ll be functional again soon. But today I’m not. 

There’s not really anything you can do to fix this. Right now, I just need some time to be with my feelings. I hope you understand.”

Once I’d communicated my needs, they were awesome about supporting me through it. 

They were caring and kind. They didn’t ask me to try to talk about it or explain myself. They made sure I was comfortable tucked up in bed, with a good supply of tissues. They fed me and brought me tea, brought me an iPad to watch a movie if I wanted to…  and otherwise they let me be.

4 – Habit Your Way to Stable

After a day or so of full-on messiness, I was feeling much better. Almost functional. But still a bit wobbly. 

This is the stage where I lean on my daily habits in order to help me get back to stable. 

(I have a simple habit tracker that I use, called Habitty. I downloaded it from the app store for less than $2.) 

In my habit tracking app, I have 9 core daily habits. 

To be honest, I don’t always do ALL of them every day. And I certainly don’t worry about them much when I’m in ‘Stage 1: Full Meltdown’. But when I’m in the ‘Recovering But Still Wobbly’ stage, that’s when I make an effort to double down and complete as many of my daily habits as I can. 

I habit my way to stable.

Here’s a little trick I use too: some of the habits I track are super basic and easy. Like “hydrate”. And “go for a walk”. And “take vitamins”. Even a 15 minute walk counts. Even 3 glasses of water counts (on top of the copious amounts of tea I drink). Even one multivitamin counts. 

See, I make a few of my habits really easy wins. So I never feel like a failure. I always feel like I’m making progress.

The rest of my habits are things that I know will help me to feel better. Like: 3 different kinds of brief meditation (ranging from 12 to 30 minutes). Dry skin brushing. Some simple yoga and breathing exercises. And some basic body-weight movement exercises. 

One of the 30 minute meditations is my ‘push goal’. A push goal is a goal that helps you achieve all your other goals. (I talk about push goals in this blog). I’ve noticed that if I do that one meditation, then I’m much more likely to complete my other good daily habits. So, I know to prioritise it.

If I do my 9 core habits every day, experience has shown me that I’ll start to feel more stable by and by. BUT if I don’t manage to do them ALL today, then I don’t beat myself up. Self-compassion is really important in this stage! If I completed more habits today than yesterday, that’s a win. And if I didn’t, that’s okay. Tomorrow is a new day, I tell myself. I can always start fresh tomorrow. 

Another habit that’s really important in this stage (but I don’t track it) is eating well. For me, that means limiting sugar and eating enough vegetables.

5 – Watch What You Watch

When I’m wobbly I need to be extra careful about what I’m watching. I stay away from any scary or disturbing news, movies, or YouTube videos.

In fact, I specifically seek out uplifting content. Movies that I know have happy endings. Light-hearted books and stories. Comedies that will make me laugh. 

I don’t worry about diving deep into personal development content when I’m wobbly. I’m not trying to improve myself, work on my ‘stuff’ or have some big A-ha. That can come later. For now, I’m just trying to get back to stable. So I focus on light content that feels soothing to my psyche and doesn’t require me to think too hard.

It seems simple, right? But this is SUPER important. The content I consume affects my state of mind a lot at the best of times… but when I’m cracked open it affects me even more. 

So, I watch what I watch! And it makes a big difference.

Maybe these tips will help you… if you’re like me, and you have your messy moments. 

However, please also make sure you have a back-up plan just in case you do feel overwhelmed. Identify a therapist that you can call, or a doctor, or a friend that you can rely on to help you out if things start to get too gnarly.

As always, let me know in the comments if this post has helped you in any way…

To YOUR Abundance,

Julie Ann Cairns

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