The HALT method is one of the most useful tools I have ever come across as a therapist. Whenever you find yourself heading towards a fight with your spouse/coworker/etc., ask yourself: Am I feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired?
This simple question has the power to radically transform those conversations. The power of the question is in how it changes our thinking. By taking a quick inventory of ourselves before a fight, we become more aware of other – often unrelated – things we bring with us into the conversation. Each day we are going to focus on one of these four feelings.
What is it about hunger?
We all know that hunger can make us irritable. Hangry is a real thing and those Snickers commercials won a CLIO for a reason. You really aren’t yourself when you’re hungry. But why is that?
The answer has a bit to do with how our brains are wired. One way that scientists sometimes organize the human brain is into three sections from bottom to top. The bottom part of the brain is the most primitive. This is the part of the brain responsible for regulating things like our heartbeat or breathing. The middle part of the brain is slightly more complex. It is the seat of our emotions and responsible for regulating things like the “fight or flight” response. Finally, the top of our brain is the seat of our most complex processing, such as planning for the future and deciding between right and wrong.
Whenever we get into a fight, we have the option of taking what some scientists call the “high road” or the “low road.” The high road is when we engage the higher level functioning of our top level brain. This helps us evaluate our emotions and take charge of them. In contrast, the low road is when we disengage our top level brain and rely on our more primitive mid level brain functioning. On this road, instead taking charge of our emotions, we are dominated by them.
For example, if I was arguing with my wife about who’s turn it is to empty the dishwasher, if I was on the high road of executive functioning I might think to myself, “I know its her turn. But it will only take me 5 minutes, and she does so much around the house already. If I just do it and get it over with, then we can go watch tv.”
If I was on the low road I might start to feel defensive and disrespected and think, “How dare she ask me to empty the dishwasher? Does she have any idea what happened to me at work today? She is never thinking about me. She only thinks about herself. Like yesterday when she…”
Obviously, we handle conflict more effectively when both parties are using their higher level executive functioning to check their emotions. However, this is much easier said than done. Our top level brain doesn’t fully mature until much later than our mid brain, and it takes a lot of time and practice to get both areas working in sync together.
What does all this have to do with hunger?
Well… some research suggests that when we are hungry, we have a more difficult time sustaining executive functioning. In other words, choosing the high road over the load road is already an uphill battle for most of us. Being hungry makes this even more difficult than it already is. Which means we’re more likely to come across as irritable or get into a fight over something that later on doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
So the next time you find yourself getting into an argument – you HALT – and you recognize that it’s almost lunch time and you’re starving, what should you do? Stop and go make yourself a sandwich.
It may sound counterproductive to pause the conversation and take a lunch break, but by doing so, you can prevent potential conflicts from descending into kitchen-sink fights that will take much more time. Both you and your partner will have a greater chance of thinking more clearly, and you’re more likely to avoid an argument and work together towards better solutions.
Eric McClerren, MS, CIT
emclerren @ growcounseling.com