The most crucial moment of my day is the first three minutes after I get home. I’m at my lowest point. If I’m asked to make a decision or address a problem, I will answer uselessly or irritably. I can’t eliminate that small stupid period. But I’ve figured out how to work around it by paying attention to my body.
Those first few minutes home are often the most physically uncomfortable moments of my day. I’ve shouldered my way home through train stations and narrow footpaths, picked up groceries, then run up the stairs, and I’m still overheated from summer heat or winter coat.
So I’ve learned to delay any real discussion — even dinner plans — until I’ve put down my stuff, cooled off and maybe eaten a satsuma. In those three minutes I get back 10 IQ points.
Hunger has a strange effect on our emotions. Even the nicest folks can get a little upset, irritable and snippy the minute they start to feel those familiar pangs down in their stomach. One solution is to eat, of course. But when that's not an option, there is another way you can avoid transforming into a bad Snickers commercial.
Sometimes that physical check-in is called HALT: Checking if you’re Hungry/Angry/Lonely/Tired.
Anger and loneliness are a lot to unpack (I’m always angry, Captain), so I like to check on the physical factors first. Am I feeling strong emotions because of an immediate physical issue? Do I need water? Do I need to pee? Do I need someone to squeeze my shoulders? Do I need to put something down?
In Scientific American, David Plans calls this bodily awareness “interoception”, a word that’s been around for over 100 years but is underappreciated in favour of “mindfulness”. You can develop your interoception with traditional “mindful” activities such as meditation, but also with simple HALT-style check-ins.
When I raised this with my colleagues at Lifehacker, everyone immediately had an example.
At some point in the evening, senior video producer Joel Kahn realises he needs to take out his contacts so he can think straight. Staff writer Josh Ocampo can’t get work done when he gets back from the gym: “I’m too relaxed to accomplish anything.”
Interim parenting editor Meghan Walbert can get snappy in the evening unless she has a snack break. Health editor Beth Skwarecki knows she needs to eat when she’s opening new browser tabs for no reason.
On her morning commute, finance writer Alicia Adamczyk gets “sweaty and irritated at everyone on the subway”, unless she’s given herself enough time for a coffee, “and proper time for my moisturiser to sink in so it doesn’t make me a sweaty mess when I’m crushed between people”.
“Mornings I need to remind myself NOT to check in with my body,” says Beth. “The first 15 minutes of being awake, any tiny smidge of tiredness or muscle soreness or a sniffle and I’m convinced that I’m dying and it would be useless to get out of bed.”
Writer Brendan Hesse deals with ADHD with “a near constant, hyper focused self-reflexive thought loop of double-checking why and how I am feeling, and the resultant cohesion between that state and my thoughts”. ADHD medication can quiet down this loop, but it also makes him less aware of things such as hunger and temperature.
Writer Aimee Lutkin does a reverse check: If she’s had a crappy or weird evening, she’s more likely to over-snack. And, she says, “I get more emotional at night so I never send an important email after dark.”
Our present culture is terrible at interoception, says Plans in Scientific American. Personally, I’ve always grated at the idea that a bodily need could control my mood.
But so many of my bad moods are solved or mitigated with a physical fix: I’m less tense if I arrange my desk properly; I stop panicking in crowds if I just look further away than my own body.
On The Cut, Edith Zimmerman wryly highlights the use of “just” to describe these feelings: It’s “just” our sore muscles, we’re “just” hungry, we’re “just” tired, as if eating and sleeping and having bodies are fringe activities.
We like to think of ourselves as brains stuck in a container, or as superheroes who can run on fumes. But we aren’t superheroes. And if we want anyone to think we are, we’d better eat a snack.