A Mindfulness Practice to Help Navigate Tough Moments

Powerful emotions are rooted in our body, in our physiology. Here’s a tool to help to discern what you need in difficult moments.

Adobe Stock/ Irina Popova

While mindfulness practices are helpful in many circumstances and with many emotional states, there are limitations to what mindfulness alone can do.

“Mindfulness is not a panacea for everything,” says Dr. Chris Willard. “Thinking it can ‘fix’ you or the people around you can set you up for disappointment.”

It’s also important to exercise caution when very intense feelings are a part of your experience, suggests Dr. Richard Davidson. If emotions are really extreme—if you’re feeling overwhelmed or unable to self-regulate— mindfulness can make things worse and introduce harm, Davidson says. “That’s why in any contemplative tradition, there are many kinds of practices using different emphases at different points in time.”

The H.A.L.T. practice may be helpful to determine whether something other than mindfulness meditation is what you need when navigating tough moments, Willard suggests. It focuses on the basic physical needs that also affect our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. H.A.L.T. is a way to explore what factors may be adding to an already challenging time, so that we can respond with a measure of insight and kindness toward ourselves.

The acronym is a great reminder to check in with yourself—your biological and emotional states—and stands for:

H – hungry

A – angry/anxious

L – lonely

T – tired

A Practice for Exploring What You Need Right Now

A H.A.L.T. Practice to Check In With Yourself

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With this practice, you simply address each letter and ask yourself the following questions.

H: Am I hungry? Would it be helpful to feed myself something healthy and nutritious rather than turn to junk food? Willard explains that tuning in to your body’s hunger signals can impact impulse control and decision making.

A: Am I angry or anxious? What can I do about my mood? Strong and negative emotions activate our sympathetic nervous system and can affect our ability to think clearly and rationally. Some deep breathing and mild to moderate exercise— even a few times a week—can be effective to diminish negative emotions, says Willard.

L: Am I lonely? Would some level of connection feel good to me in this moment? Is there a friend or family member I can reach out to for an emotional boost? “Spending time around people is like medicine,” says Willard. “Even just being out in the world has health and mental health impacts.”

So if you’re feeling lonely—an emotion most of us have felt in the last few years—contacting a loved one or even going to a place surrounded by people can remind you that yes, we are all connected.

T: Am I feeling tired? Have I been working too many hours or been getting too little sleep? Fatigue affects our emotions, explains Willard, especially our degree of self-regulation. And we also know that there is no making up for lost hours of sleep. The answer may lie in creating daily habits (such as turning off screens a few hours prior to going to bed, and turning in and waking up at the same time as consistently as possible) that improve our sleep hygiene.

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