Monday, November 12, 2012

H.A.L.T.: A Self-Care Tool

H.A.L.T.: A Self-Care Tool

I first came across the acronym H.A.L.T. when I was working as a counselor in chemical dependency treatment centers twenty years ago. H.A.L.T. stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. Each one of these four physical or emotional conditions, if not taken care of, leaves an individual vulnerable for relapse.

Relapse for an alcoholic or addict, of course, means resumption of using alcohol or drugs to manage the discomfort, but since working in the more general mental health field I have seen how even those of us not suffering from chemical dependency have our own forms of relapse. This may show up as relapse into other forms of addictions (excessive gambling, eating, shopping, TV watching, being on the computer, or excessive or inappropriate sexual activity -- to name just a few). Relapse may also show up as falling back into old beliefs about ourselves that result in emotional states such as shame or imagined guilt.

I have found H.A.L.T. helpful for anyone, including myself, because there is no getting away from sometimes feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Following I will go through each of the four conditions in more detail in order for you to get the most out of this self-care tool.

Hunger, of course, describes the most obvious physical condition of lack of food. We all know how important it is to have regular nutritional meals -- preferably small in size and frequent in number. So I will not belabor this point here. But hunger can also point toward emotional needs: hunger for attention, for comfort, for understanding, or for companionship. It is very important that we have others in our lives who can give us their loving care. In 12-Step recovery circles these others are available in the "fellowships" of particular meetings. For other people these caring beings may be present in their spiritual communities, in their circle of friends, or other groups they attend. Just like we need grocery stores to take care of physical hunger, we need the community of like-minded people to fill our emotional needs. Therefore, the solution to emotional hunger is community.

The next condition, anger, is a little bit more complex and the solution perhaps a bit more challenging for some people. Here is the good news: there is nothing wrong with the feeling of anger! But here is the bad news: most of us have never learned how to express anger constructively. The way we express anger often takes hugely destructive forms. We either turn anger against ourselves or against others. Anger can range from criticizing and belittling to name-calling and physical violence. Anger can also be like a repeated tape loop; in that case it's called resentment.

Let's deal with the latter condition first. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that a person with resentment toward another pray for the other, that is, imagine all the good in life that we would like to have for ourselves to be bestowed upon the other person. You don't have to call it prayer; choose a word that works for you. My experience has been that anybody who subjects themselves to this discipline will eventually reap the benefit of feeling free from the incessant thoughts about the individual involved, and an unforeseen resolution to the conflict usually emerges.

Now let's look at the other forms of destructive anger mentioned above. First of all, you need a time out during which to breathe and be in control over the emotional charge that anger evokes. Some people actually need to do some physical activity such as walking, running, stomping or screaming (if you have privacy) to help them discharge the tension running through the body.

The next step is to look for the underlying cause of your anger. Anger is always about some form of perceived helplessness or powerlessness.Usually it can be remedied by identifying a request that needs to be made. When we make a request, we need to be willing to negotiate an outcome that works for both parties involved. Sometimes, however, the relationship dynamic that provoked the anger is so destructive that we need to distance ourselves for a while or even for good.

If you have difficulty with guiding yourself toward a time out, self-reflection, and moving toward a constructive request you may need professional help. Sometimes anger seems to run our very being and, in that case, it is usually connected to childhood trauma.

Next in the H.A.L.T. acronym is Lonely, which refers to isolating oneself. It is similar to Hunger in that the solution is the same, namely community.However, loneliness points to the difficulty of reaching out. This can have several causes, one being that isolation was a childhood survival tool, the other being emotional or clinical depression. If loneliness is either a constant or a frequent companion of yours and you don't seem to be able to come out of it on your own, again you may need professional help to look at the underlying causes.

The last of the H.A.L.T. acronym conditions is Tired. We all have a tendency to ignore tiredness at times. Several years ago I saw a video of an experiment in which volunteers were subjected to either alcohol intake or sleep deprivation. The upshot is that physical tiredness may be the cause of as many traffic accidents as alcohol consumption. It is a serious condition that endangers our wellbeing as well as that of others. The solution is of course napping or sleeping. If you have prolonged difficulty sleeping at night see your health care provider!

The other form of tiredness comes from taking on too much, being overloaded and overwhelmed -- an almost universal condition in the busy lives we all lead. The only solutions I am aware of is to cut down where you can, take short breathing breaks, step in front of your door and smell thefresh air (if available), and take vacations (frequent short ones or a good long one -- yes we can learn from the Europeans!).

Now you know H.A.L.T, an easily portable and very practical tool for everyday living. I give thanks to the people in Alcoholics Anonymous, where I think this acronym initially emerged, for using their experience to benefit us all.



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