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.
The importance of sleep
Many of us already know that we can get kind of irritable when we are tired. But why is that? Part of the answer may have to do with what goes on in our brains while we sleep.
For many years, people believed sleep was mostly a passive activity. However, we now know that our brains are actually quite active while we sleep. While we are asleep, our brain replenishes and restores itself through processes such as neural consolidation and synaptic pruning. During restorative sleep, the brain flushes itself of excess hormones and other normal pollution that builds up during waking hours, leaving it refreshed and prepared for the next day.
The average adult requires somewhere between six to nine hours of sleep each night for the brain to fully restore itself. For adolescents, the number goes up to between eight and eleven hours per night. Every night.
In other words, our brains are like engines to a car. Only, they are infinitely more complex and require an oil change every 24 hours. Just like an automobile, if you go long enough without performing the scheduled maintenance, they will inevitably begin to break down. As a result, we are more likely to become irritable, short-tempered, and a whole host of other not-so-pleasant things.
The high road and the low road
Just like we mentioned in part two of this series on hunger, lack of sleep can also make it difficult for the brain to take the high road of executive function rather than the low road of emotionally-unregulated processing.
Our brains are naturally biased toward the low road of unregulated emotionally-fueled operating. It’s an evolutionary adaption. If we are hiking down a forest trail and suddenly come across a slender dark shape on the ground in front of us, the the middle of the brain begins telling our lower brain to increase our heart rate and breathing to prepare to fight or flee from what the apparent snake in the path long before the thought even hits our consciousness. It’s only after our higher level executive functioning kicks in that we take a second look and realize its just a stick, not a snake.
Overall, this is a good thing. It’s the reason why we’re able to swerve to avoid an accident, or jump out of the way of a foul ball, before we fully recognize what’s happening. It’s part of what happens when first responders say things like, “I don’t know what happened. I just reacted.”
However, sometimes this response system can be too reactive. Just like the snake in the path that was really just a stick, there are times when we need to stop and evaluate our reactions. The part of our brain that processes things like the consequences of our actions resides in the top part of the brain. When we are sleep deprived, our brain has a hard time engaging this top part of the brain, which is why we are more likely to say things we might regret later on. Let alone all the other things that can happen when we’re being driven by our emotions rather than controlling them.
Can we sleep on it?
So the next time you find yourself irritable and getting into a fight with a spouse, coworker, or anybody else, stop and ask yourself: Am I feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired? If you find that you are feeling tired, your best option might be to just admit it ahead of time. Saying something like, “Look, I’m recognizing that I’m feeling really tired and we’re about to get into a fight over something that I don’t really want to fight about…” might help save you some time and relational equity. If you have time to sleep on it, pick the conversation up at a later time. If not, the added awareness of recognizing what is going on may give you just enough insight to keep you from saying or doing something that you might regret.
When it comes to sleep, however, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. If you are operating at a sleep deficit, it can take anywhere from five to seven days of restorative sleep for the brain to return to optimum condition. So your best bet is to try and stay out of debt. Which, in our fast-paced world, is much easier said than done.
Eric McClerren, MS, CIT
emcclerren @ growcounseling.com