How Highly Sensitive People Can Use the ‘HALT’ Acronym to Stop Overstimulation

HALT stands for Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, and Tiredness — four “risk states” that can cause overstimulation and overwhelm.

Four simple letters can bring you back to the present and stop overstimulation.

I was dealing with an issue at work recently when, seemingly out of nowhere, I started to cry. This caught me by surprise. The issue I was dealing with was small and not that big of a deal. Even though I’m a highly sensitive person, I wouldn’t usually cry over something like this.

As I dried my tears, I thought about it for a little bit: What made me so quick to cry in this situation?

Then it hit me. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept well the past couple of nights, and as an HSP, I really need at least eight hours of sleep in order to function properly. (In fact, HSPs overall need more sleep than others.) Any time I’m overly tired, it’s easier for me to snap at things that wouldn’t normally upset me. My lack of sleep was a probable explanation as to why I’d cried over a small mishap.

In my case, I only managed to figure this out because of my long experience knowing my own “overstimulation triggers.” But it turns out, it’s part of a larger tool therapists recommend to check on your feelings — and prevent overstimulation and overwhelm. And I think it’s particularly useful to HSPs. 

What Does ‘HALT’ Mean? It Stands for Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, and Tiredness

I didn’t know it at the time, but my little self-assessment is part of an acronym some therapists use called HALT. HALT refers to Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, and Tiredness. It’s a sort of mini-checking you can use when you’re feeling anxious, overstimulated, overwhelmed, you name it. It’s a method for checking in with ourselves in order to assess what we need to feel better.

For highly sensitive people, learning how to HALT can be incredibly valuable. Because we’re so impacted by our environments and internal experience, it’s important we know how to assess our feelings and make adjustments as needed. Let’s dive into each of the letters of this acronym to learn how to use them in a practical way.

‘H’ Is for ‘Hunger’

You know those times that you’re so hungry, it makes you angry? That’s where the term “hangry” comes from, a common issue among HSPs. This is actually because when we’re hungry, our blood sugar drops, which then triggers a flurry of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones trigger feelings of stress and the fight-or-flight response, which cause us to feel edgy.

Highly sensitive people are especially sensitive to blood sugar imbalances because we’re naturally so acutely aware of the changes in our body. In fact, we actually have more activation in the insula part of the brain, which is what gives us access to more somatic intelligence. Basically, when something feels a little bit off for us, it can be nearly impossible not to notice it.

The good news is that there are ways to balance our blood sugar so that we’re less likely to experience those moments of anger due to being hungry. As best we can, we can try to be proactive about it so that we’re not caught off guard by extreme hunger and blood sugar drops.

Highly Sensitive Refuge spoke to Meghan Toups, LPC, ABD, who says, “HSPs can aim to balance their blood sugar by eliminating refined sugar and processed foods. This is particularly important because spikes in blood sugar (caused by eating a lot of sugar and refined carbs) can lead to mood instability and irritability.” Instead, she suggests switching to sweeteners, like maple syrup, stevia, or coconut sugar, which helps regulate blood sugar better.

For HSPs, it’s especially important to take good care of our bodies so that we’re less impacted by things like hunger, which exacerbates our feelings of overstimulation.

‘A’ Is for ‘Anger’

Many highly sensitive people find that they feel angry when they’re overstimulated. I can attest to this on a personal level. Any time I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work I’m given, I immediately go to this feeling of anger and resentment. If I get caught up in feeling this way without taking a step back, I may risk behaving in a way that I’ll later regret.

When the feeling of anger arises, try your best to calm yourself before making any sort of decision or taking any action. For me, having a regular meditation practice has helped me get better at responding mindfully in situations, rather than reacting impulsively. This cord-cutting meditation for sensitive souls is one of my favorite meditations when I’m feeling upset. It aims to do exactly what it sounds like — it helps you cut the cord from challenging interactions with others, stressful situations, and anxious thoughts. At the end of this meditation, the goal is for you to feel calm and reconnected to yourself. 

It’s also important to remember that it’s completely normal to feel different emotions, and when they arise, it’s healthy to actually allow ourselves to feel them. When we experience anger, but then try to stuff it down or ignore it, it may come up again later in an even more explosive way.

“Practice acknowledging and naming your emotions — especially the difficult ones, like anger and sadness,” says Toups. “If we repress emotions regularly, we are more prone to outbursts or experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Working with a licensed therapist or trained professional can help you to develop an emotion-based vocabulary.”

‘L’ Is for ‘Loneliness’

As human beings, we are wired for connection. And even though the majority of us sensitive people are introverts who enjoy spending time alone, we still have an innate need for connection with other people.

Sometimes when we’re feeling off, it can actually be because we’re feeling disconnected from other people. For instance, you may be living in the same house with your spouse, but if you’re both constantly on your cell phones rather than having meaningful conversations, you may begin to feel lonely.

Another way HSPs may feel lonely is by not having people around them who “get” them. It’s important for us sensitive souls to have a community of people who relate to us and make us feel seen, accepted, and heard for exactly who we are. Without that, we may feel isolated, lonely, or disconnected, which can lead to feelings of depression.

Thankfully, there are many wonderful online communities for highly sensitive people to connect with one another from all over the world. We can also take steps to explain our sensitivity to the non-HSPs in our lives in order to feel a deeper connection with them.

“HSP’s can learn how to advocate for themselves in relationships by explaining that while they might not like to attend crowded restaurants or concerts, connection is still vital,” says Toups. “Being highly sensitive isn’t something to be embarrassed about, and surrounding yourself with supportive friends is a game-changer.”

‘T’ Is for ‘Tiredness’

Feeling tired can affect highly sensitive people greatly. For most of us HSPs, getting an abundance of sleep is vital to our overall well-being. Since we’re constantly taking in so much stimulation and processing at such a deep level, we may get exhausted more easily. It’s important for us to ensure we’re getting plenty of rest in order to recharge our systems.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I quickly became emotional at work due to a lack of sleep. When we aren’t getting enough rest, it impacts our emotional, mental, and physical health. Being tired makes it easier for us to fall into patterns of overthinking and anxiety, which then contribute to feelings of overwhelm.

For HSPs, it’s crucial to have good sleep hygiene — a good sleep routine — in order to support our sensitive systems. Here are some things you can do before bed to ensure a better night’s rest: limit screen time, take a warm bath, drink calming tea (such as chamomile), diffuse lavender oil, or listen to a calming, yoga nidra meditation.

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How to Use HALT to Combat Overstimulation

Using the HALT practice is a wonderful way for us HSPs to check in with ourselves and gain an awareness of what we need from moment-to-moment. When we’re able to assess if we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, we can then pinpoint a way to support ourselves in the moment. “Because the regulation of the body impacts the regulation of the mind, and HSPs feel things more deeply, any imbalance can feel like a big one,” says Toups.

Some ways you can combat overstimulation include:

  • Take a time-out. No matter where you are — at work, a party, at home — if you start to feel overwhelmed, take a time-out. If you can’t get outside, even if it’s a bathroom or closet, find a mini HSP sanctuary where you can get some moments of calm. You can do some deep breathing, listen to a soothing song, or whatever works best for you.
  • Take a technology break. These days, we’re so connected to our devices. However, when we’re feeling overstimulated, one of the best things we can do is put our phone away. Sometimes we need a break from the constant social media notifications, blue light, and opinions of others online. It’s amazing how much better we feel when we disconnect for a bit!
  • Spend time in nature. Nature is a healing balm for a sensitive soul. Sometimes the world feels too loud, aggressive, and overwhelming for us. But, when we take a step outside and connect with nature, we’re reminded of the beauty and simplicity that exists all around us.
  • Lay under a weighted blanket. Weighted blankets are an amazing tool, especially for those who struggle with anxiety. Lying under the heavy blanket feels soothing, like a warm hug, and calms our nervous system. This is my favorite weighted blanket that I sleep with every night!
  • Move your body. Sometimes overstimulation and emotional overload can make us feel wound up and edgy, as if we have energy we need to get out of our bodies. If you’re feeling this way, physically moving your body is always a great thing to do! Whether it’s going for a walk, stretching, kickboxing, or swimming — exercising is a sure way to feel more calm and clear.
  • Write it out. Do you ever feel like you have a million thoughts running through your head? When we’re feeling overstimulated, it can be hard to think straight, which perpetuates the cycle of overwhelm. Writing out your thoughts and feelings into a journal is a great way to get them out of your head and onto the paper. This practice itself can be very therapeutic and often takes the edge off the worries that were so prevalent in our minds.

It’s also important for us to be compassionate and loving with ourselves. When we’re feeling out of balance, it can be easy to judge ourselves for feeling that way. We may wish we were less sensitive and affected by things. However, when we meet ourselves with compassion, we can resolve the uncomfortable feelings in a quicker, gentler way.

As highly sensitive souls, we will naturally be more impacted by our internal experience and the world around us. Using the HALT method is a great thing to keep in our HSP mental health toolbox. It’s also a wonderful way to lovingly support yourself the way you’d support a child, or someone else you care about. You deserve to be treated in that same way, too!

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