Introducing “Bottle Up and Explode Syndrome”

explode bottle.jpg

Let’s start with a disclaimer: “Bottle Up and Explode” Syndrome is not a real thing. It’s actually the title of an Elliott Smith song that pops into my head every time I have an emotional breakdown.

A working definition of “Bottle Up and Explode” Syndrome

I define “Bottle Up and Explode” Syndrome as the result of repeatedly stuffing difficult emotions as they arise. When the undealt with emotions build to the point that our bodies can no longer contain them, they involuntarily burst out of us. Inward manifestations of “Bottle Up and Explode” Syndrome might take the form of dissociation, suicidality, “irrational” thinking, or intense fear. Outward manifestations might include angry outbursts, sobbing spells, or impulsivity.

Though highly sensitive people are prone to more grandiose explosions, my concept of “Bottle Up and Explode” Syndrome is not affiliated with any particular psychological disorder. Anyone can experience it: an overworked employee, a sleepless new mother, a high school senior, etc. Our society places so much value on productivity that emotions have been rendered inconveniences. In turn, it’s considered normal — even noble — to suppress them.

Real-world application

I suffer from PTSD and am in remission from Borderline Personality Disorder. Because my emotions are naturally enormous, I have trained myself to avoid them, assuming that releasing them will scare people away. But emotions don’t just vaporize if we ignore them. Instead, they pile atop one another like planks on a cracked foundation. The problem with building on a broken foundation is that too much weight leads to the structure’s collapse.

Here’s an example of “Bottle Up and Explode” Syndrome from last week: I ended a new relationship on Thursday. I had an emotional conversation with a ex-boyfriend on Friday. On Sunday, I was asked to publicly share my life story. On Tuesday, I reopened old wounds in my trauma therapy group. And then, on Wednesday, a friend jokingly commented that something I said in poetry class was “cliche.” I lost it. I sat in his car, my feet on the dash, too overwhelmed to articulate my feelings. When he asked what was wrong, I groaned and stared out the window until he dropped me off.

Because I hadn’t dealt with the succession of triggering events, my well-meaning friend was suddenly cast as the vessel for all the sadness, disappointment, anger that had accumulated throughout the week. My worst fear was realized: I had publicly exposed my extreme emotions and couldn’t put a lid on them. If I had allowed myself to process the individual events and associated emotions as necessary, his comment would have bounced right off me.

Recognizing “Bottle Up and Explode” Syndrome

So how do you know if you’re verging on “Bottle Up and Explode” Syndrome? I’ve identified a number of signs based on my own experiences. If you recognize them in yourself, it may be time to step back and use some coping skills.

  1. You feel like you’re somersaulting through life without reflection.
  2. You feel distant from yourself.
  3. You’ve lost connection with your bodily sensations.
  4. You’re experiencing abnormal levels of exhaustion.
  5. You’re constantly on the verge of tears, but refuse to let them out.
  6. You feel like the smallest thing could make you snap.

How to combat “Bottle Up and Explode” Syndrome

The solution to “Bottle Up and Explode Syndrome” is to address stressful events as they arise. If left undealt with, even the smallest things will contribute to burgeoning tension.

Let’s say you’ve just received a call from the doctor about your mother’s dwindling health. Your impulse might be to avoid your feelings by diving back into your work, but this just increases the chance of explosion. Take a five minute break. Shut your office door, head outside, lie on the floor, or hide in a bathroom — anything that provides solitude and silence works. At this point, you get to choose your own adventure, the ultimate goal being to release your emotions and come back to your body. You can try out some mindfulness techniques like body scans, breathing exercises, or guided meditations. You can scream into a pillow, cry along to “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M., or vent to your cat (be wary with cats though — they’re not the best listeners).

Whatever you do, resist the urge to suppress. If you’re in a situation that doesn’t allow for a mini-meltdown, return to the triggered emotions after tending to your obligations. If you feel like your lifestyle doesn’t allow for five minute breaks, know that your work will suffer if you allow difficult emotions to linger.

Emotions are wonderful things. They may be uncomfortable, but everyone experiences them. Witnessing my own episodes of “Bottle Up and Explode” Syndrome has taught me that it isn’t my raw sadness and anger that frightens people — it’s what happens when I refuse to deal with them. We must learn to lean into our discomfort as it arises. If we run from pain, the pain will chase us.


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