I learned the HALT acronym early in my recovery process, and while it is easy to remember, and logical in its construction, it was one of the most challenging tools for me to learn how to use.
The word “halt” actually translates to “stop” in German, and is a technique used to remind us to pause in moments of adverse emotions, feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or other triggers, and take a self-assessment. Why? Because these moments of feeling overwhelmed by emotions are when we are most likely to act out in unproductive behaviors that have previously helped soothe, numb, or otherwise blunt the pain of what is actually going on in our hearts.
Once we’re able to pause, we take a walk through the letters of the word “HALT,” and ask, what am I really feeling right now? What need(s) really need to be met? Ones that will not be met by binging, drinking, self-harming, using another substance or abusing oneself? Am I actually Hungry (H)? Am I Angry (A)? Am I Lonely (L)? Am I just Tired (T) – mentally, emotionally, or physically? Hunger, Anger, Loneliness and Tiredness are all painful feelings, and on the other side of them are needs that deserve to be met. Self-care and self-compassion in its most basic and fundamental form is learning how to identify what we actually need in a difficult situation and meeting that desire rather than stuffing it down with dangerous and unfulfilling coping mechanisms.
Why did I find HALT so hard at the beginning? To begin, because I didn’t want to stop in the moment and assess. Sometimes, that is the most challenging part. Our emotions can feel like a runaway train, and the last thing we feel that we have the tolerance for is stopping and actually doing some self-examination. However, once I started, with the support of my treatment team, to trust myself – that I could in fact pause in those overwhelming moments and not collapse into tears, rage or panic – I learned I was much stronger than the lies of the eating disorder would have me believe. Gradually, stopping to assess became easier.
The next challenge of the HALT acronym was learning to identify my actual feeling or need in any given moment. For those who have also spent years pushing down and ignoring emotional and physical needs, you’ll be able to relate. I was so used to forcing myself NOT to feel, that I it took a long time to realize that I did in fact have needs – physical and emotional – and meeting them felt good, and it was the right thing to do. This re-wiring of my entire frame of mind took massive effort, patience with myself, and a lot of radical self-acceptance as I fought my way to learning more about myself and how to self-soothe. And as I grow older, I’m still learning about myself and identifying my needs. It is a process and takes time but is very much worth the effort.
After addressing these two major hurdles, applying HALT is becomes easier, and I have found to be extremely effective. When we discover what we really need – nourishment, a healthy way to express our anger, companionship or connection, or rest – it is like a “Eureka!” moment. An epiphany. The body and healthy-self knows what it truly needs. In times of struggle, it is urging you quietly to listen to your heart and your head and give it in that moment what will truly satisfy, rather than a cheap imitation of satisfaction.
Are you hungry? Have a nutritious snack; something that is satiating and tasty. Are you angry? Ask yourself what about, explore that, and perhaps find some creative avenue to express that frustration or fear. Are you lonely? Call someone, reach out to your treatment team, find a way to connect with another human being as soon as you can. Are you Tired? Give yourself permission to rest and to be, rather than just “do.”
You are a human being, which means you have needs. That is ok and normal (perhaps you need a loving reminder)! The next time you feel overwhelmed or on the brink of acting out, stop, breathe, and reflect on what you really need and deserve. You are worth the time and attention.