Shutdowns vs meltdowns

I sometimes feel as though I am getting far too used to autism jargon. But here’s another new term: shutdown.

I see this as being the other side of the coin to meltdown. The triggers can be the same. But for reasons I haven’t worked out, my reactions are very different. When I have a meltdown, I externalise my fear and anxiety. With shutdown, all of the fear and anxiety seems to go deeper within me. I try and retreat. If I am standing, I often just drop to the floor.

It’s almost as though – and I don’t know whether there is any scientific evidence for this theory – in times of extreme stress my normal ‘fight or flight’ mechanism becomes amplified. If ‘fight’ becomes amplified it leads to a meltdown, with ‘flight’ leading to a shutdown.

Shutdowns are most often triggered for me when I have too many things to process at one time. For instance, if too many people are giving me instructions and expecting me to respond. I need time to process speech, and if there are too many words then the processor breaks. The same can happen if I’m reviewing complex diagrams.

So, how does a shutdown look? In the first instance, I’ll try and get away from whatever is triggering me. I may start repetitive physical movements – rocking or tapping – but these are less pronounced than in a meltdown situation. Once shutdown takes hold properly, I may have my head in my hands, or be curled up on the floor. And I won’t respond to questions; I may appear not to even hear them.

Shutdowns feel quite different from my perspective as well. Unlike the ‘rollercoaster ride’ of meltdowns, shutdowns are like looking into a void. I feel physically cold. Emotionally, along with fear and anxiety, I tend to feel lost and alone. And when there’s no-one to help me – which is most of the time – it almost feels like a tiny part of what makes me ‘me’ dies with each shutdown.

Both shutdowns and meltdowns are distressing experiences for me and I would do almost anything to never have to experience either again. But I would choose 100 meltdowns over a single shutdown. Unfortunately for me, I don’t get to make that choice. And shutdowns are becoming more common as I start to accept that this is my life now. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m not so angry, so my fallback position of internalising things is taking over. I’m not sure this is progress…

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