I should have kept my mouth shut. My wife and I were lying in bed, tired and exhausted from another long day. I can’t even tell you what the fight was about now. But at the time, despite the warning signs, winning the argument seemed so important.
In today’s post, I’d like to talk about four signs that trouble is just around the corner, and, what we can do about it. Their first letters conveniently form the acronym HALT, which serves as a good reminder for what we should do when we recognize them. (Since Christians love cheesy acronyms, I expect this post will go viral. And major hat tip to Michele Cushatt from Michael Hyatt’s podcast ‘How To Become Your Spouse’s Best Friend’ for the idea/acronym HALT).
Trouble Ahead: Four Warning Signs
Hungry – we all know what it’s like to get grouchy and irritable when we’ve gone without food for an extended period of time. We even have a word for it now: ‘hangry’. It’s not just our imagination, either. Turns out that there’s real science behind it.
Angry – when we’re angry, we say things we mean but should keep to ourselves. Anger also influences our decisions without our awareness and leads us to abandon careful, systematic thinking in favor of easier, less reliable ‘cognitive shortcuts’. When I’m angry, for example, I find myself thinking – or saying – things like, ‘you always’ and ‘you never’.
Lonely – despite (and partly because of) the wonders of technology and the virtual connections it can create, we are increasingly lonely. Which is not good. Emotional loneliness, for example, is as likely to kill you as smoking. It also tempts us to turn to quick fixes like pornography, food and TV.
Tired – about a third of American adults get less than 6 hours of sleep a night. Sleep deprivation contributes to depression, skin aging, weight gain, less sex, more disagreements and marital dissatisfaction. It also leads to poor cognitive performance and motor impairment approaching, or equal to, levels that come with being legally drunk. Practically, though, we all know that life just isn’t great when we’re constantly tired.
It’s Not Rocket Science
Well, that was cheery, wasn’t it?
Even aside from the data and statistics, though, we all instinctively know that being hungry, angry, lonely and tired put us in a place where we’re not at our best. Or ready to relate to others.
The real question is this: what do we do with all this information?
It’s so easy to say, ‘yup, that’s me’, get overwhelmed, and then do nothing about it. (I’ve been there. And am there depending on the day).
One Step Back, Two Steps Forward
First, we need to take one step backward and reflect. For most of us, being hungry is pretty straightforward and probably doesn’t require tons of self-analysis, but anger, loneliness and being tired are often not so simple.
Regular readers of this blog know that one of my central convictions is that our behavior is driven by our hearts, that deepest part of us and what we really treasure. (See Matthew 6:33-34 for a succinct statement of this principle).
So, when we’re angry, lonely, or, tired, we have to ask ourselves what’s going on inside of us. When I get tired, it’s usually because I stayed up late doing something ‘fun’. Fun isn’t bad(!), but it needs to fit into the rest of my life. I tend to stuff too much into the rest of my day so that downtime can only come at the expense of sleep. I’m not respecting the limits God has given me. And so, for real change to occur, that’s where I need to have the conversation with God.
This is an important long-term strategy, but, what can we do in the moment? Let me suggest two things we can do to move forward.
Pray. One of the best things I ever learned in counseling is that I need serious help – from God – in difficult moments. Like when I’m hungry, angry, lonely and tired. Instead of trying to handle it all by myself, I’m learning to ask God for rescue on the spot, like David long ago: ‘Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free’ (Psalm 118:5). It’s making a big difference and diffusing situations that would’ve blown up on me before.
Step back. When we’re feeling stretched, it’s tempting to just move forward. To have the tense conversation. To shoot from the hip and make the decision. To hit ‘send’ on the email. To do something passive-aggressive. The results are usually… sub-optimal.
Far better to recognize we’re not in a good space and pull back. To ask our friend if we can sleep on it and talk tomorrow. To take a day or two and pray before deciding. ‘Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding’ (Proverbs 17:27).
Obviously, these aren’t magic bullets. But, by recognizing the danger signs of hunger, anger, loneliness, and being tired, we can reflect, pray and step back so we can love the people we care about better.
Let’s live it out: Which of the 4 warning signs do you struggle with the most? What practical step could you take to handle it better next time?