Shutting Down – Mimi's Experience
Unlike a ‘meltdown’, ‘shutdowns’ are more muted and discreet responses to highly stressful situations. When the brain feels overwhelmed, it ‘shuts down’ to cope with the intense external environment.
Mimi said: “Shutting down is almost like…The glass frosts in front of you. You’re sort of in this glass box and you can’t see through. Everything is happening around you but you’re in this state.”
“So for me, that includes not being able to verbalise my thoughts, and suddenly the lights are brighter and the sounds are louder…And I start to feel all the threads in my clothes, on my skin.”
She faces an increased sensitivity to her surroundings and there’s too much information to process at one time. When this happens, it helps to find a quiet room where she can seek refuge from the stimuli and begin to recover.
Whilst high stress levels are the usual cause, the specific triggers will differ between individuals. For Mimi, ‘shutdowns’ can be triggered by a variety of factors, including any changes to her routine or something as simple as an unexpected phone call.
If she feels a sense of rejection from someone, or things don’t go as planned, this can also create anxiety and make her withdraw.
She continued: “It’s like you can hear they’re saying words at you, but it’s just bouncing off. It’s not going in, your brain is not processing it at all.”
“It’s sort of like a TV going into standby mode in a way. So you’re still on, and the light’s still on, but the screen is black.”
By shutting off her sensory channels and withdrawing into her own world, her brain attempts to manage the overwhelming input and create a layer of protection. It can no longer process further information and therefore shuts down to isolate the environment and cope.
She added: “If I can’t shut down and I want to…I will usually meltdown, so I will sort of become quite volatile, perhaps use aggressive language, start snapping at people, and I don’t mean any of this, and I know that’s okay.”
While ‘shutdowns’ and ‘meltdowns’ are both responses to overwhelming situations, ‘shutdowns’ are more internal. Instead of presenting with external, physical reactions, the individuals might dissociate and struggle to express themselves.
Both can be extremely distressing experiences – and what each person needs in that moment will be highly individualised.
“I wear sunglasses indoors. I quite like plushies, so I’ll have one of those or sensory toys. I love to fiddle with my hands, so anything like that helps with not shutting down.”
Once Mimi has processed the situation in her own time and space, she can then accept support from someone else.
“What works for some people won’t always work for another person, but a general piece of advice is ask them once if they would like to talk about it or if they would like help.”