We all have different reasons for the development of our fears and anxiety triggers. For example, I have a very serious fear of being judged and found unworthy or at fault, and while I’m sure that’s something no one wants, I know that my reactions to even the possibility of judgment are over-the-top, way out of proportion compared to the typical hurt and embarrassment someone else might experience. At the same time, a fear or worry someone else has might seem silly to me.
Our major sources of anxiety, and in particular those that induce a reaction in us that seems out of proportion to the object of our fear, have origin stories that are unique to our own experiences. But while management and treatments for anxiety need to be personalized to your own specific triggers and to your lifestyle in general, there are some quick and easy tricks that you can use, alone and without the need to ask a stranger for help or give up your plans for the day if you don’t want to. And the one I’m going to introduce you to today is also super easy to remember:
HALT in this case is used as an acronym, but the word halt itself tells you what to do first – STOP.
Not all of the elements of HALT are this literal, but stopping needs to be the first step here because you will need to focus 100% of your attention on reducing your anxiety. For example, if you’re walking, stop and sit down if possible. If you’re driving, find a safe place to pull over. If you’re at work or school or out in public, take a restroom break. The idea here is to immediately escape from as much external sensory input as possible. So even if you’re comfortably relaxing at home, put down the phone or turn off the tv, because you need to put all your thought and attention on you for a few minutes.
When you’ve limited outside distractions as much as possible it’s time to determine whether or not there is a simple reason that your anxiety is at a particular peak right now. This is where the HALT acronym comes in. Each letter – H, A, L, and T – represents a specific unmet physical need that may be exacerbating, or potentially even causing, this anxiety spike.
- The H stands for hungry.
Consider the most immediate situation first – how long has it been since your last meal? Is it time to stop what you’re doing and prioritize a healthy, filling meal over the agenda you had in mind? If you had a meal within the last 4-6 hours, think about how healthy and filling it really was. If your meals tend to be light in calories, low in healthy proteins, or just small and not well thought out, maybe you need to carve out some time to determine a way to make sufficient amounts of healthy food more accessible, or alter your schedule or plans so that you can put your full attention on your meals when it’s time to eat. If you know that hunger is the problem on a regular basis, but aren’t sure what needs to change, consider talking with a nutritionist or dietician.
- The A of HALT stands for angry.
You can definitely be angry with someone or something without realizing it, or on the other hand it could be completely obvious that you’re angry, but you don’t expect anger to feel so much like anxiety. If you read my first post at the start of this series, you know that anxiety is a mental and sometimes physical manifestation of fear. Anger functions in the same way – it appears as a reaction to unwelcome words or information. Both fear and grief can wear anger as a disguise, but when anger is producing a high level of anxiety that is in turn interfering with everyday life, analyzing the source of your anger isn’t as important in the moment it hits.
Although you shouldn’t ignore it either, dealing with your anger, fear, and grief is a long course, so you’ll need a temporary fix that won’t force you to interrupt your regular daily work.
That said, naming the source of your anger as the source of your present anxiety can get you started on the path to recovering from both the anxious moments and the anger at their core. What you can do in this moment, or in the imminent future, to assure yourself that you won’t have to continue living around it?
Anger that is unresolved is like a broken step on a staircase – you can work your way around it, but it’s going to trip you up at some point. But if anxious anger or frustration interrupts you, you may need to set up a reminder for yourself to address it, and an incentive to seek some type of resolution, even if the situation remains uncomfortable. Anger resolution can look like sitting down with someone you’ve argued with and trying to come to terms with your differences, or it could mean that you rethink your own perspective and accept the situation as it stands. Either way, you should do whatever you need to do to set the anger aside, even if you can’t change it, so that you can live your daily life without it becoming a major obstruction.
It’s important to be able to set aside an argument or problem with another person, but sometimes, when the problem is especially hurtful to us, we end up trying to care for ourselves in unhealthy ways. Although being comfortable when you’re alone is a good thing, being very nervous or uncomfortable around others is not, and self-isolation, intentional or otherwise, also produces a nebulous sense of anxiety.
- The L in HALT stands for lonely.
We all need to find our own comfortable balance between time alone and time with others, and sometimes that balance can seem like a moving target. I’m dealing with this right now myself. Relationships are always hard, and often a single argument or resentful feelings in one relationship can put us into a self-imposed isolation. For example, on the rare occasion that I get into a major argument with my husband or one of my children, my need to resolve the problem hijacks my thinking so completely that even basic, simple chores seem like barriers to a resolution. This, I know, is a plain and simple reaction to my intense fear of being unloved or abandoned. On an intellectual level I know that my family won’t pack up and leave because of a disagreement, but some primal instinct is telling me that any minute the rug will be pulled out from under me.
But the opposite reaction is also common, and in the relationships I have with friends the problem of loneliness trips me up. It probably isn’t a surprise to anyone that I’m not good at small talk. I find it so awkward that it’s almost unbearable, so without giving it much thought, I avoid it. The dilemma, of course, is that I can’t ever seem to get past small talk and arrive at the deep, heartfelt friendships I do want because I’m still at home, avoiding small talk. It’s never-ending cycle of lonely that I haven’t quite found a way to interrupt yet.
My unmet need for deep, heartfelt friendship simmers under the surface all the time, and though it’s rarely the source of major anxiety, when I feel overwhelmed by busyness and responsibility (which is a pretty regular thing for me), it becomes my invitation to my own personal pity party. I’m overwhelmed with too much to do and too little time, and the anxiety rises, and inevitably I start telling myself that if I had friends I could ask for help everything would be better. The problem is that that sort of thinking doesn’t help me in lonely moments; instead it distracts me from finding a real solution. Self-pity in general isn’t helpful for much of anything.
The solution for me in that moment is to call someone. If I do know someone who would be willing to help me I can solve both the busyness problem and the anxiety at once, but usually I don’t have that option. I do, however, have membership in a large support group network that connects almost excluseively by phone. My friend in Fort Lauderdale can’t drive my son to practice for me, but she can listen calmly to my anxious frustration and reassure me that being unable to be in two places at once isn’t a personal fault.
And we all need a friend like this, or several. It’d be nice to have a friend who could drop everything and come help me with a problem, but I don’t have that right now. However, having a friend who is willing to bear witness to my frustration is just as helpful. Maybe even moreso.
Another good friend to have alongside you, physically or virtually, is someone who can receive and empathize with your anxiety trip while also steering your thinking away from “why me?” and get your mind on the road to “what now?”. Your emotions during an anxiety episode deserve attention and recognition, but they can also leave you stalled in place when urgency is needed. Your empathetic friend and your “just go do it” friend may be two different people, each with their own gifts to offer you. Life is complicated and your well-being is important. A multi-disciplinary team of specialists (good friends) who care about you is not an unreasonable need.
- Finally, the T of the HALT acronym stands for tired.
Like the H for hungry, the T calls your attention to an oft-neglected physical need. Here I’m referring to the physical requirement of sleep and rest, not the emotional weariness we experience when we are tired of something; so while this question requires examination, you want to look at the amount and quality of your physical sleep and bodily rest, not the more emotional idea of being tired of your backache or your mother-in-law. As with the H of “hungry,” you need to step outside of your anxious emotional responses and look at only the present moment and the recent past in the same way that a doctor would consider and gather information from a patient.
Recall your sleep habits and patterns in a clinical fashion, gathering data on your recent sleep habits. Both quality and quantity of sleep are significant here, but quantity is simpler to analyze, so it may help to begin there. How long did you sleep last night, from the moment you switched your light off to the moment you got up for the day? How about the night before? Get a rough estimate for each night of the last 5-7 days, and then find your average number of sleep hours per night. If you wake up frequently during the night or struggle to fall asleep, factor that into your estimate to get a more accurate idea of how much restful sleep you typically get. The usual goal for average adults is 7-9 hours per 24-hour period, but if you’re 65 or older you may need 9 or 10 hours instead. If you have trouble falling asleep, tend to wake up earlier than you intend to without falling back to sleep, or if you regularly go for several nights in a row with less than 5 hours of rest due to shift work or caring for others, consider how this might be affecting your health too. God designed our physical bodies to require regular cycles of work and rest, and any time we neglect a physical need our bodies and minds will suffer.
As simple as it sounds, our culture doesn’t honor our sleep needs. We live within a constant stream of information and entertainment, often deceminated from an LED screen bright enough to convince our bodies that it’s sunshine, and thereby keeping us awake by sucking us into a realm of constant “streams.” It requires a lot of self-discipline to get enough good sleep to get through any average day. If this is a big obstacle for you, make a decision to prioritize your sleep health for at least one week and then re-evaluate your anxiety levels and how often you experience acute anxiety. If more focused attention on sleep hygiene has a positive effect on you, this is a part of your personal treatment plan.
It’s important to recognize that each of these factors – hunger, anger, loneliness, and sleep – play a key role in acute anxiety episodes, but the affect of positive changes in any one of these factors will look different for each individual and may change over time for each person as well. It could be that right now eating healthier and connecting with friends and family more often will make a great deal of difference in your anxious moments, but your sleep habits and your general emotional barometer are pretty stable. But, as life changes, it could be totally different six months from now.
Like a car or a house, our minds and bodies require regular, proactive, and sustainable habits and maintenance to be healthy, and frankly, we will always be in need of something. This is a part of God’s design for our lives. If our bodies and minds functioned perfectly and comfortably all the time with little effort on our part, we would have no sense of our need for God, leaving us to worship ourselves and indulge any desire that we come upon. Thanks be to God for the blessing of our needs.