Today I'm tapped out. My patience abandoned me without a backward glance after the 20th tantrum of the morning, and my energy has been AWOL for days. I can hear my son over the baby monitor, fighting yet another nap, and my head is aching from tiredness and from the head cold we’ve both been battling all week. I feel brittle and on edge, and I can feel myself getting snappy despite my best efforts to remain calm.
The low point arrived when my son insisted on taking his spoon from me during lunch, and I insisted on taking it back so I could, you know, feed him. Cue full meltdown. As I watched the tears roll down his face, I realized that my cheeks were wet too. Something needed to change.
In this moment, I remembered something from a recent episode of "Jane the Virgin" (bear with me, it’s applicable!). Jane has started experiencing panic attacks and her therapist tells her to remember the acronym HALT. When Jane feels her heart start to race or her anxiety mounting, she needs to take a deep breath and check in with herself: is she Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? The answers help Jane understand why the panic attacks were happening and how she can prevent them in the future.
As a mental health therapist, I learned the HALT acronym for use with addiction treatment. Clients who are struggling with addiction are far more likely to relapse when these basic physical and emotional needs aren’t met. It’s also useful for clients who are struggling with depression or anxiety (as Jane was), but I never really thought to apply it to my own life. Sure, I know that I get hangry sometimes, or that I’m grumpy when I’m tired, but I’m usually aware of these triggers and understand how they affect my mood.
When we become overwhelmed, however, we forget to check in with ourselves on even a basic level. How many times have you forgotten to pee because you got distracted or pulled away to care for your children? If we can’t find the time to go to the bathroom, no wonder it’s so easy to forget to care for ourselves in other ways.
When I checked in with myself after the lunchtime meltdown, here’s what I realized:
H (Hungry): Yes, I was hungry. I’d had a small, early lunch, which clearly hadn’t filled me up. Furthermore, I realized that I had been feeling on edge every afternoon this week (and had been eating the same thing for lunch each day). This told me that I need to change my eating habits to give myself more fuel for the latter part of the day!
A (Angry): I wasn’t angry, per se, but I was feeling agitated because my house was a mess and I had several pressing items on my to-do list. Once I tidied up and took care of some of those tasks, I felt much calmer.
L (Lonely): At first, I didn’t think this was a “yes,” because I had spent a lot of time out with friends the previous day. However, I realized that I usually talk to one particular friend each morning (she’s a stay-at-home mom with a toddler so she understands the struggle) but today she was busy, so I'd missed a crucial area of support. I gave someone else a call and immediately felt the anxiety ease a bit.
T (Tired): Between my son’s congestion and poor sleeping, my husband’s snoring and sneezing, and my own sore throat and congestion, a family head cold had taken its toll on our energy. I was worn out, plain and simple. I texted my husband to let him know that I needed reinforcements, and he was able to take over when he came home from work in order to give me a break.
I can happily report that after eating dinner, checking some tasks off my to-do list, talking to a supportive person, and getting some time to myself, I feel much better. I’m still tired and congested, and my son is still fussier than normal, but I’m more equipped to handle the stress now that I’ve taken care of my own needs.
The HALT acronym didn’t miraculously solve my problems, but it made me aware of several factors that were negatively impacting my emotional state. I have a Master’s degree in Counseling and consider myself a fairly self-aware person, but even I forget to meet my basic needs sometimes – and then I wonder why I’m in such a terrible mood! The next time you find yourself in a funk, remember to HALT. Take a deep breath, check in with yourself, and see what you need. The answer might be as simple as a granola bar and a quick call to a friend.
It takes a village!
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