What To Do When You’re Hangry

Good news! Hangry is a real word now. Hangry - the combination of hungry and angry – the cousin of tangry (tired/angry), which isn’t a word, but will be soon.

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H-anger usually hits me on a Saturday or Sunday. I will have breakfast early but watching cartoons with the kids doesn’t cost enough calories to trigger my hunger button. Next thing I know, we’re wandering through Costco, and the fluorescent lights start to get brighter, noises are amplified, and people’s heads start popping off.

Being hangry is specifically a mood caused when glucose levels are too low. The brain begins to stress out, as if facing imminent death, and hormones like epinephrine and cortisol are amped up. In a wild rabbit, this kicks in an urgency to find food immediately; in a human, we get all worked up and yell at our kids or some random passerby.

Nonetheless, hanger shows clearly how our biology can affect the way we feel in real-time. Sometimes it’s a warning – you’re tired, you need to sleep, or you’re hungry, eat! Sometimes it can be side effects from hormone changes like postpartum depression or a teenager’s mood swings. Then there are neurological disorders like dementia, bipolar depression, head trauma or brain tumor. I might be alluding to all types of misery in this article, but I like ‘hangry’ because it’s a state everyone knows well.

So what can be done about h-anger?

The first step is to simply notice when you feel off.

Maybe you’re immersed in a face-melting road rage…stop, ask yourself, “Is it me?” The external world is always happening to us but how we define it changes depending on our internal state. In other words, all things out there pass through a filter which is in here and that filter can be sparkly and smell like roses or it could be grimy like week old work socks.

Most techniques for calming stress start by encouraging us to pay attention to what’s going on inside. They might even suggest writing these thoughts or feelings down. Now, some of you would rather wrestle a live boa constrictor than write down feelings; nevertheless, it’s almost a superpower to calmly be able to pause and process one’s emotional state at will.

 Step two – get diagnosed. 

 Now that you’ve decided things are a little off on the inside, it’s time to see a doctor.

“Doc, I feel terrible. The voices in my head won’t stop, ‘Kill, murder, stab.’”
“Sir, your glucose levels are dangerously low. Somebody get this guy a sandwich!”

Ok, ok, most of us won’t see a therapist upon feeling hangry. But don’t worry, you will be diagnosed either way. Only, instead of clinical terms, neighbourly onlookers will use terminology like ‘asshole’, ‘loser’, ‘unmanageable’, ‘selfish’, ‘psycho’, and ‘loner’.

Diagnosis of depression is on the rise

Diagnosis of depression is on the rise

There will always be a debate about whether sticking a label on every subject and sub-subject on earth is a useful tactic. On one hand, a label or diagnosis can be a relief and help lead to a cure. After acting foolishly at Costco, we can take a deep breath and say, “I was just hangry.” On the other hand, diagnosis might let an individual pass the buck to a third party – the disease or the syndrome or what have you. Maybe while hangry you finally choose to express your true feelings about your mother-in-law…and then you say, “Sorry, I was just hangry.”

It’s a nuanced argument, and neither side will be 100% right all the time, so the debate goes on. 

 Step three – Eat.

For hanger, the answer is food. It can help immediately. For more serious maladies, there are drugs – legal, yet powerful, mind-altering drugs.

Anti-depressants (SSRIs) aren’t your standard codeine-laced cough-drop. Few people would brag about using them, yet between 2011 and 2014, one in nine Americans reported taking at least one antidepressant medication in the past month. In fact, by 2013 antidepressants were the most commonly prescribed medication in the United States.

With h-anger, or t-anger, there is a clear and obvious solution. Proper depression, however, can be a biggie. Proponents of psychiatric medication can make it sound like it’s irresponsible not to take medication for one’s mental illness. Then you’ve got your ‘it’s all in your head – take some St John’s Wort and get on with it’ folks.

The science of depression has come a long way since the 50s. In 1988, Prozac became the first ‘blockbuster’ SSRI, and suddenly competitors had a billion-dollar incentive to get into the biz. A once poorly understood, even ridiculed condition was now being talked about, diagnosed, and medicated worldwide. For some people, this was a life-enhancing breakthrough. For others, it was life-altering, but that’s about it.

There are more than a few reasons why even severely afflicted people with mental illness avoid taking medication. First, the side effects are not at all gentle – you will know you are taking antidepressants. After weeks or months of use, most patients will need to up their dosage. If you start when you’re young, you could be looking at a lifetime of trial and error, depending on the severity of your case. Another thing you will hear subjects say is, “It turns me into a different person.” No one likes vaporizing their old self, even if it caused nothing but trouble. And let’s not overlook the stigma that goes along with drugs in general – that pervading itch in non-users to suspect that so-and-so is taking a ‘shortcut from reality’ – as if ‘reality’ is always the best thing for us.

Happily, new fields of research are being added in the world of mental illness to help supplement pharmacology. I recommend Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections for an introduction to these new ideas. And for a couple of tips from yours truly, keep reading.

 Treatment from the inside out.

“I don’t envision a single thing that, when developed, leads to such great benefit as the mind. The mind, when developed, leads to great benefit.” - Ekadhamma Suttas  (AN 1:21–30, 39–40)

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I hope I’ve dispelled the claim that ‘it’s all in your head,’ because now I will say, “It’s kinda a little bit in your head.” That is, we all have some cards to play even in an intense hanger attack.

Take the expression of anger itself and notice a few key elements – time, quality, and intensity. Imagine you are late for work and there are 16 intersections between home and the jobsite. Time would be how many red lights you can get through before losing your FREAKIN’ MIND! Quality would be how insane your reasoning will be during such a freak out – Mayor Nenshi is ruining my life with his streetlights! And intensity, you see where this is going.

Sadness, anger, we all experience it no matter what letter stands in front or what our diagnosis. Yet, how we express our emotions can be shaped with practice. Two techniques that I’ve found useful for this are mindfulness meditation and C.B.T. (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).

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Mindfulness is the method of observing one’s consciousness and everything it produces – vision, sound, thoughts, etc. We don’t naturally perceive things sans-bias. Take this ‘Guess Who’-like character: just living her life, short black curly hair, hoop earrings, self-assured pursed lips reminding me of my third-grade French teacher and bringing with it a flood of fear and misery that always accompanied her presence…28 years ago. Mindfulness aims to dispel the judgments we stick to every little thing, so often the root of anxiety and distress.

For all the time I put into mindfulness, hanger still happens, but the payoff is found within its expression – the time before reaching critical mass is much longer and the intensity is toned way down.

The goal of C.B.T., cognitive behaviour therapy, is to notice distorted thinking and to see the world more accurately. I discovered this in the book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, where they introduce C.B.T. as an alternative to the instant medicating of depressed millennials. In the Appendix, they provide a list of common logical errors like catastrophizing, mind-reading, negative filtering, etc. Each time you find yourself in the grip of a cognitive distortion, you name it, then look at the facts of the situation, and see if you can bring your judgments in line with those facts. Sometimes they are in line, but often we are causing ourselves more pain than we need.

C.B.T. helps purify the quality element of h-anger and enhances critical thinking in general.


For your entertainment, I decided to starve myself and go to Costco this Christmas while practicing C.B.T. Below is my journal entry.

Hours since last meal: 7 First, the parking lot. I see a spot right in front of the door. What are the chances! Just about there and it’s yanked by a black Mustang. That’s okay, it’s a beautiful day. Now entangled in a horde of pedestrians I putter my way through sixteen blocks to the nearest empty spot, dodging runaway carts and multiple ‘spot callers’ – those cars that sit with a blinker on while a family of 8 loads two carts of groceries into their van. Hours since last meal: 8 Finally, I back into a spot…and slip on a patch of ice while getting out. Grrrrrrrr…

Entering the grand palace, the guards take my I.D., “Costco card, please?” Why is she looking at me like that? It’s the jean-jacket, isn’t it? She thinks I’m a redneck. Mind-reading.

If I wasn’t already regretting this trip, the line-ups to the till were staggering. It’ll take me seven years to get through those lines. I should have stayed home. Tuesday would have been better. Catastrophizing. Regret orientation.

First item, granola. Aaaaand…they’re out. Of course, just my luck. Personalizing.

Meandering through the product displays at the center of the store, my eyes catch a glimpse of a beautiful fireplace hearth. $1499.99!! What am I doing? I don’t deserve to fantasize about owning this. Personalizing. Guaranteed this family next to me could afford it; look how nice their jackets are; they probably already have one. Unfair comparisons. If my parents focused more on my education, I would have been able buy this. Blaming.

Once at the produce, I see apples – 10lb bags are on sale for half price. Probably a bad batch. Negative filtering. Fortune telling.

Cart loaded, I head toward the end of a grotesquely long till line when suddenly a feral child runs in front of my cart. What bad parents. Labeling. Bad, bad parents. I could have concussed her. Catastrophizing. There are kids running all over the place around here. Over-generalizing.

While this mind-storm is cranking up to a thousand I stop for just one second and think, all I had for breakfast this morning is a piece of toast. H-anger, once diagnosed, only requires a $1.50 hot dog (comes with a pop), and all is good. All paid up and stuffing my face, I instantly feel a soothing – like the heavens opened and a million cherub babies were breathing their sweet milky breath upon me. This hot dog is unbeatable. Over-generalizing. The chef is a hero. Labelling. After this, I’m going to enroll in medical school. Dreaming.

 

For further reading and a more professional glimpse into therapy for the depressed, I really liked this page. It includes a free download of various worksheets, including the chart below for C.B.T. journaling.