HALT – Four Simple Questions for Expat Stress

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I remember rumbling around in an SUV along the chaotic, pot-holed streets of Antananarivo and my friends laughing about the little bag of almonds I always had tucked away in my pocket.

Those nuts were my stress-reduction tool, my safety net – not because I have a health issue that requires me to always have food on hand, but because being in strange places heightens my sense of anxiety. Of course, I’m always in strange places…even “home” is sometimes strange now since I no longer live there. So, I don’t go anywhere without my snacks.

In my mind it’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The car could break down, we could be without cell service, we could get robbed….but at least I have my nuts. I won’t starve.

I think at its heart what this comes down to is the importance of reminding ourselves that moving from place to place is stressful and that it’s okay to need what we need. We don’t have to be bullet proof. Immersing ourselves in a foreign place doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, rely on certain necessities to smooth our way.

In fact, quite the opposite is true. If we’re to be our best selves, to engage fully with our international life, to weather transition with reflection and insight and to learn from the places we go – we must develop an awareness of what gets in the way of being in that place. The good news is – this isn’t rocket science. In fact, I’ve found one simple acronym – HALT – that provides an excellent starting point to tuning in and accessing my best self in times of stress overseas –


This acronym, commonly used to help people dealing with anything from a cranky toddler to addiction recovery, serves as a reminder to stop and ask the following questions when we’re faced with stress:

Am I Hungry?

Am I Angry?

Am I Lonely?

Am I Tired?

I can’t imagine a better set of questions for expats dealing with transition, unpredictability and culture shock. The basic premise is this…

Things are going to come up that stress you out. You’re going to feel vulnerable and lost and uneasy. That’s normal. You’re a human and, if you’re a triangle, you’re a human in a strange place, which means these feelings are going to come up all the time.

HALT gives us an easy-to-remember way to check-in when we’re overwhelmed. It gives us a structured way to see what important steps we may need to take address what’s coming up and enables us to move on to more complex needs from there.

What does using HALT look like in real life?

Let’s set the all-too-familiar scene…

You’re at the airport and you’ve arrived late because of traffic. Perhaps you’re traveling with your kids, or your partner, or your dog (or all of the above). Maybe it’s just you, but you’re frazzled and overwhelmed and on the other end of your 15-hour journey is a hotel room or an unfurnished apartment in a town you’ve never been to before or barely know.

You sense yourself teetering just on the edge of losing it. You take two deep breaths and ask:

Am I Hungry?

Yes? Go get a snack. Don’t skip this step. Eat some food. Get a drink of water. If you know in advance that this comes up for you often – prepare ahead by taking something easy with you like my bag of nuts.

Am I Angry?

Yes? Remember that this isn’t the time to start rehashing what happened to get you here. It’s a time for tending to the anger. Choose your favorite anger-management tool – deep breathing, going for a walk, stretching, listening to relaxing music. Pick something that works for you and actually take the action. Be like a duck – imagine the anger rolling right off of you. If it’s a big deal – you can come back to it later at a better time. For now, use your tools.

Am I Lonely?

Yes? Reach out to a friend. Send a quick text. Make a short phone call to hear a familiar voice. If your partner is there, give him or her a hug. Are your kids with you? Ask one of them how they’re feeling (bonus – research shows expressing empathy towards others helps us deal with our own emotions).

Am I Tired?

Yes? Start by simply saying in your head, “Oh, you’re so tired. It’s been a long journey.” If you can, sit down somewhere comfortable and try a power nap. If that’s not possible simply close your eyes for a few minutes. Acknowledge that you’re tired and that it’s a natural part of traveling. Take a few breaths, allow your body to relax, notice the sensations of being tired, maybe give yourself a shoulder or neck massage. By demonstrating self-compassion in this way, we can actually improve our emotional and physical well-being and develop resilience in the face of future stressful events.

Then what?

By the time you mentally walk yourself through all of these questions and take steps to address any feelings that are coming up, you’ve already done one of the most important things for reducing stress – you’ve tended to your needs. You’ve tuned in, shown self-compassion and reflected on what’s most important. And that alone is probably the most important stress-reduction tool for people on the move.

Have you been there? Have you used the HALT acronym? How might you remind yourself to use this method in the future? Are there other stress reduction tools you’ve used? We’d love to hear your ideas and questions in the comments.

Author: Jodi Harris

Originally from Austin, Texas, Jodi has lived in Spain, Northern Ireland, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar and Japan (her current home). She is raising three TCKs in loving, if not occasionally chaotic partnership with her husband, a US Diplomat. She is a trained clinical social worker, teacher, life coach, writer, T1D mom and the owner of World Tree Coaching – Life Coaching for Expats. She specializes in reminding expats how capable and amazing they really are and supports people in finding a sense of home no matter where they go.

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