H.A.L.T. – Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired
People in recovery programs from addiction are told to make sure they do not let themselves get Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired lest they become uncomfortable enough that the brain signals them to reach for their drug of choice to settle the discomfort and they have to battle a craving, perhaps even relapse. Those of us in recovery from a severe mood disorder are also vulnerable to relapse from those same factors, and I have something to add to the list – and that is stressed, which is a fear response.
H.A.L.T. S. – Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired-Stressed (afraid)
“Stress” is our body’s way of reacting to a something that we believe might harm us. When we encounter the fear-inducing circumstance, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system, which invokes the fight-or-flight response. We are in survival mode – our body is flooded with chemicals from the adrenal glands designed to let us fight or run from tigers. Everything we don’t need to fight or run is shut down. This all happens at an sub-conscious level, beyond our immediate control.
Compare how you and your body feel on a beautiful morning doing something you enjoy, sun shining, birds singing, totally relaxed, with how you and your body feel in rush hour traffic slowed by an accident and you have something important you MUST do at a certain hour, which is fast approaching – say, make a speech before a waiting audience – or how you feel during a performance review with a boss you don’t particularly like or get along with for whatever reason. There is a perceived threat to your well-being, neither fight nor flight is the appropriate response, but there you are with all those chemicals in your body. Your digestion closes down. Your higher order thinking goes on strike and you can’t “see past your nose.” You are “on your last nerve” when it comes to dealing with the people and situations in your life with zero frustration tolerance left to draw on.
“We can begin to see how it is almost impossible to cultivate positive attitudes and beliefs when we are stuck in survival mode. Our heart is not open. Our rational mind is disengaged. Our consciousness is focused on fear, not love. Making clear choices and recognizing the consequences of those choices is unfeasible. We are focused on short-term survival, not the long-term consequences of our beliefs and choices.” The Body-Soul Connection.
What we need is Stress First Aid – a well-rehearsed plan of action. Why planned and rehearsed? Just at the time you need it the most, when the stress hits, your brain goes on strike.
I have been dealing with major stress all week – grief and family conflict (everyone else is stressed too) – and yesterday I woke up seriously depressed. It doesn’t happen to me that much any more, I guess it’s a good reminder. It took me most of the day to get back to normal and send the limbic system dragon (fight-or-flight) BACK where it belongs, have the stress chemicals leave my body, and put my reasoning mind back in charge. I could not have blogged yesterday. I tried, but I couldn’t write coherently at the time. (Note to self – I perhaps could have JOURNALED – in a notebook no one else would ever see and I might have better memory today of exactly what was going through my mind at that time).
Two things I want to emphasize:
- “Stress” is our body’s way of reacting to a something that we BELIEVE might harm us. So one aspect of the first aid is to argue with those beliefs. Actually, while something you are attached to might have to change, no real and lasting harm can befall the strong, loving Being of Light that you are.
- When we are in survival mode, we can’t argue with those beliefs because our higher order thinking has shut down and no way did I believe I was a Being of Light. Reading empowering quotes was actually quite annoying. Remember, I woke up very depressed, which in my case involves feelings of deep shame or “I’m not enough” (not guilt- wrongdoing), a sense of helpless hopelessness or “I’ll never be enough,” with feelings deep sadness. I actually cried when my sweetie “criticized” me (asked me to put something away I’d left out). Really. Last nerve.
And while I have been in recovery enough years to recognize what was happening to me, to call it by its proper name (depression in my case) and to know it was misrepresenting the truth, I was powerless to stop the reaction.
So this brings me to the rehearsed part of the first aid, one that also produces a bodily response, this one in the other part of the autonomic nervous system, the part that calms things down. Now, just because it took me all day to come out of it, the good news is that today, I did not have to give in to it. It was very uncomfortable but still knew it was temporary and I would be”restored to sanity” if I just didn’t do anything stupid. And I had a personal stress toolkit as it were.
“Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath.” Natalie Goldberg
Ahhhh, the BREATH. I have many things I do on a daily basis to stay centered and open-hearted, but none of them worked yesterday. You don’t appreciate the beauty of birdsong in the forest with a tiger in hot pursuit and you definitely don’t feel grateful. OK, I was too far into the physical stress response for the everyday remedies. And as far as connection to the earth, it was indeed my lower chakras – survival and power – which were out of commission and put everything else out as well.
- I knew I had to wait it out. I had to wait for the stress chemicals to leave my body and this would be no 15 minute exercise. In fact, although it got better over the course of the day, it took until this morning for me to feel like myself again. “Oh, hi, there’s a world out there and it’s pretty awesome.”
- I remembered to ask the Divine (by whatever name you choose) for help. I know that in an emergency, fancy words fail me, so all I can say is “Please Help me, please Help everyone else Highest Good for all concerned.” Always, almost immediately, the intensity of the stress is reduced.
- I put myself in “Time Out.” I’m lucky that I can do that. My sweetie understands me, gives me wide berth at times like this, and I have no kids at home. In fact he left for the afternoon and early evening to do something he enjoyed and spend time with friends. PLENTY of space. About the time I started missing him, he called. Wonderful man. Very lucky lady.
- I had to keep my mind occupied so it wouldn’t contribute further false information to slow the process. I learned long ago to put “I over E.” (Intellect over Emotion) when in this state. I can play computer match-3 or jigsaw puzzle games, taking my mind OFF of my disempowering thoughts and the games have the added benefit of pumping reward chemicals into your system when you beat a level. Yeah dopamine! I can not play word games when I am in this state. I can do art a little later, which uses mostly my right brain, and I did. It seems to still function and bypass my reasoning brain altogether. Very calming while waiting it out. I didn’t read any “old friend” of a novel yesterday, but that also seems to work very well – I can be somewhere else where I feel safe while I wait it out.
- I had to focus on breathing. I teach a breathing and smiling meditation that ordinarily works well for me, but I didn’t feel like smiling though I tried. It made things worse because it was so far from what I was feeling. I was still too full of stress chemicals. But while I kept my mind otherwise occupied, I could still focus on the breath, and because of practice my body remembers calm and began to work towards it through the parasympathetic nervous system.
- I had to get enough sleep last night even if it meant medicine. I often have a hard time sleeping (fibromyalgia), but last night when I woke up after sleeping a few hours I took an anti-histamine to feel sleepy enough to go back to sleep. This medicine is perfectly safe for me and recommended by my doctor. I slept through the rest of the night.
- I am sharing my experience so I remember it. And so maybe you can benefit from my experience.
This is my stress kit, you may need something a little different. Remember what you want to do is to:
- Recognize this is an involuntary reaction to stress and the chemicals will leave your body if you just STOP (everything you can) and wait.
- Stop the negative self-feedback loops by distracting the mind. When you are overcome by feelings you look for a cause. It isn’t anyone else. The cause is your body’s stress reaction to some perceived threat. You have the power to alleviate the reaction completely within yourself. The problem is not outside of you, however tempting it can be to think so. The problem is not your inadequacy, however familiar that feels. It’s simply physical and it will pass.
- Tell everyone you are in Time Out mode. Unless you have a small child at home, you should be able to plan for this. Of course, a small child activates your bonding reactions.
- Do something (healthy for you) to bring your parasympathetic (calming) nervous system on board – meditation or prayer – running – massage – singing – bubble bath….
- When you feel better, review what you did, see how well it worked and what you might do differently next time.
I would be most interested in knowing how YOU handle major stress reactions. I hate them and I know you do too.
Namaste. I love you.