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Tips to Stop a Meltdown

by Sally Willbanks
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Tips to Stop a Meltdown

I recently posted a tip on Instagram.  The tip read: You can stop a meltdown by eating something cold or sweet/sour, as your brain won’t stay in fight/flight mode while eating.  I decided to write a blog post on this because I received so many responses with good ideas.


I’d like to preface this by saying that there were a couple of people who thought the idea of stopping a meltdown would cause harm; that once a meltdown starts, it has to run its course.  There are differing opinions on this.  In my opinion, if you use any of the techniques below to halt a meltdown in its tracks, you need to do something (or help the child do something) that gets that pent up energy out, like punching a pillow as hard as possible, or going for a run.


I received many responses.  Here are some of the helpful ones with more strategies and explanations:


“Yes! The very cool science behind this is the vagus nerve. It is the swallowing that triggers the vagus nerve located on the right and left side of the oesophagus. Swallowing, cold, not so much the chewing directly but indirectly, as it is usually followed by swallowing as it produces more saliva, even with gum, and gently massaging either side of the throat in an up and down motion can stimulate the vagus nerve as well. It really is a useful tool to have on hand.”


“Biting into a lemon really helped me when I had lots of panic attacks in January.”


“Gasping to stop nausea or panic episodes.”


“Crunchy foods like cereal help him self-regulate too.”


“Ice chips in our house!!! The crunch of it helps her sensory-wise too! Double win!”


“Ice is a good one, but you don’t even need to eat it, just hold it in your hand.”


“When I meltdown I usually feel hot temperature-wise, so I press a cold water bottle to my face right before and it’s like shocking your nervous system.”


“I did read somewhere that sweet things can balance the dopamine in our brains during meltdowns.”


“I drink a lot of ‘ice with water’, that really helps me.”


“The act of swallowing is supposed to help the vagus nerve to send calming signals, and the brain usually finds eating pleasurable so is tricked out of being in fight or flight.”


“Yes, frozen raspberries Just came to my rescue couple of hours back.”


“This explains why Landon loves sour patch kids... (me running 🏃‍♀️ to get sour patch kids).”


I can see the link somehow. The vagus nerve definitely calms down with cold temperatures. I have heard of cold showers before, but never internal calming.” 


“For me it's a sensory regulation thing. I mean I'm usually melting down because I'm dysregulated which means a lot of proprioceptive deep pressure activity is needed to regulate... So, I can disrupt the emotional part of a meltdown and get temporary control, but I'll still need to do something quickly to regulate ... sort of needing to physically beat the meltdown out of my body with movement. If I can get into a quiet space away from people, away from noise, light, etc and do something like weights or a treadmill or running that I can get the deep pressure into my joints, the meltdown won't resurge, but I only have a short window to disrupt the emotional part of the meltdown and get deep pressure before it just is too late, and everything has to just implode. And the recovery time is still there and needed.”


“My therapist told me to eat those sour lemon candies. They definitely help.”


“It's true!! Especially the spice, as it stimulates your saliva glands thus bluffing your body into starting up all its processes. Another thing you can do it tense everything (all of your muscles) whilst lying down as it tricks your body/mind into thinking it’s had the 'fight' so to speak so can now start regulating itself once again and switch back to the logical brain. (I have autism, epilepsy and anxiety disorder and these hacks have been so good).”


“The mouth and jaw area have so many sensory receptors which send proprioceptive feedback to the nervous system.”


“That makes sense. If you’re in real danger, you won’t eat. You’ll be too busy trying to stay alive to do so. When you’re in fight/flight over something that isn’t a threat to your life, you can attempt to bring yourself out of that by eating. Eating will signal that the danger has passed, and everything is okay again.” 


“Intentionally shaking out your body helps a lot too. Animals do it instinctively when the threat is over, but we can do it consciously to trigger that cool down stage in the experience.”

“We used to use glasses of iced lemon water, once they were taking sips and sort of disrupted the meltdown panic loop then we could take breaths, so sip breath sip breath, until they're finally breathing deeply and could rest. It's just a habit now, everyone just goes and gets ice water when they're needing it.  We go through lemons like you wouldn't believe though.”


“True! I’m a therapist and it also helps with symptoms of panic.”


"It's also effective if you eat something high in protein becasue the brain strugges to produce stress chemicals while digesting it."


 “It’s linked to the senses and arousing them to reduce fight/flight not the digestion.

 Our OT said it shocks the nervous system, we use frozen juice ice cubes a lot.”


“Peppermints and cold water are my go-to.”


“I slice limes and bite on them to help me with my meltdowns. I love limes and the sour taste.”


“It also works if you put ice or a heat pack in your hands. It focuses you brain differently.”


“If you pour some salt on your tongue it should distract you from a meltdown or panic attack because of the surprise of the taste.”


“Same if you submerge your face in cold water. It causes you to calm right down.”


“Not just food/eating. Any kind of ‘sensory shock’ will do it. Grab hold of an ice block, hop in a freezing shower, splash your face with cold water, listen to a loud and jarring song, eat something that you don’t really enjoy.”


I find many of these tips interesting and helpful.  It is important to note that we are not talking about self-soothing with food.  This is not about placating someone having a tantrum.  Meltdowns are a physiological response to a nervous system in fight or flight, so these techniques are to trick the nervous system into calming down.  As I mentioned earlier, I believe it is important afterwards to do some proprioceptive work to get that energy out.


I hope these tips help!

by Sally Willbanks


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