This state can come in varying degrees – from an intolerable sense of panic to manageable-but-overwhelming worry. Regardless, it’s always something that keeps you outside of your life – unable to truly engage and enjoy it as you see others do. Living in survival mode, you want to run but you don’t know where. Nothing feels “safe” except checking out of your body – so most in survival mode end up drowning themselves in busyness. This is never healthy or sustainable for many reasons – the most dangerous of which being the lack of connection to self, and with that, a lack of self-care. In short, this is an issue that causes many people a whole lot of pain. You’re likely very high functioning – meaning – able to take care of and manage a lot of tough stuff, both emotionally and mentally, and you also likely discount that in yourself and feel your particular stuff is “Not that bad.”
Survival mode means there’s no long-term plan. The end of the week feels like a long way off. When you’re stuck in survival mode, you feel like you’ll never dig yourself out of the hole.
The stress is overwhelming. Your sleep is disrupted, your breathing feels odd, your heart beats erratically, and you can’t think straight.
There’s no joy in a lot of days. Your goal is to avoid having a terrible day. Having a great day isn’t an option.
You’re never one step ahead. You bounce from response to response.
Everything matters way too much. There’s no margin for error.
You can’t take the time for excellence. All work is “good enough.” There’s little going out the door of which you can be proud.
Those who believe their situation is temporary are lulled into the cycles of up and down. They imagine that everything is going to be okay when they get some momentary relief. They don’t realize that the low moments are getting lower.
This problem does not fix itself. Denial isn’t acceptable. The first step toward exiting survival mode is acknowledging that it’s happening. Tell yourself: This is not normal. This is not sustainable. This makes everything worse. Most people don’t even know you are going through it. Some people don’t even know they are going through it themselves.
When I was first started going through a tough time mentally and feeling quite confused with it all, I would compartmentalise. No matter what I was going through internally, I was going to stay positive, not talk about it, stay sociable and privately I would seek counsel. I kept busy with my studies and work. For one, I wanted to enjoy those times with friends, family, at work, socialising, because a lot of my alone time was burdensome. They were like pain relief. What I wasn’t so aware of at that time, was the part of me that was afraid to share. Afraid of being judged, misunderstood, rejected, isolated. That part stayed alive for a very long time. The only time I truly expressed my thoughts and emotions were with my Therapist every week. I had misunderstood in the past that when I did open up to people, and they could not be there for me, that it meant I should stop talking. My instincts were heightened, not wrong. I was talking to people who could not understand where I was coming from. Comprehension and compassion were absent.
Last year I regressed back into survival mode. Apart from my Therapist and a couple of people, nobody knew what I was going through. That became a lot more difficult. My usual method of compartmentalising was starting to fall apart. I could not afford to fall apart. I still had to go to work. Life still goes on. When I could, I spent more and more time on my own. It was the only time I could rest and process what I was going through. How you handle challenging times can become automatic. It may take on patterns, it can be generational or you might pick up unhelpful habits just to cope.
October last, I was on the brink of finishing up work and going away. Flooded with feelings of exhaustion and excitement. What I was not prepared for was the transition out of survival mode.
There is a chemical reaction involved in survival mode. You are running off adrenaline and cortisol. They provide you with all this energy and drive. I stopped and these chemicals were still flooding my body. There were days where I was full of nervousness, tension, brain fog, night sweats, vomiting, digestive upset, insomnia. I felt fearful for the first few days. I did not expect this physical reaction. As time passed, my body started to regulate. I was eating and supplementing to support my Nervous System. The sunshine and ocean being the greatest antidote to it all of course.
I had pushed the pendulum so far one way that it needed to push just as much to the other extreme before it came back into balance. I thought a month or six weeks off would do that. My body and mind knew better and I had to be more patient.
January 2020 I was still very lethargic. Physical symptoms were still present. No energy. The end of March came, and I was starting to really pick up. Life was getting back on track, and then life changed for everyone.
I remember the first two weeks of lockdown I decided to make a plan of action regarding work, future goals etc. Nothing I had ever thought about doing previously to lockdown. Then I noticed what I was doing. Over functioning. Only for I caught myself, I could have fallen back into that survival loop again. It just shows how easy it is to regress. I was still in recovery and more patient I had to be.
June 2020 and I felt more balanced. Symptoms reduced. Sleeping better then ever. Plenty of energy. Eating well. Exercising regularly. Daily nature walks. Ocean visits when it is safe to do so.
Coming out of Survival mode has been so difficult. Not just physically and emotionally.
If you are not letting emotions flow and go, you carry them with you. It takes up space in your mind, in your body, in your heart. It wasn’t in the knowing that I had a need for change; it was caring enough about myself to want to change. Any real change implies the break up of the world as one has known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.
Even though survival mode is not a place to live in, what you know, becomes comfortable. What is comfortable is not always healthy.
Everything I had gone through in the past, all had the same meaning. There is something wrong with me. I got so invested in the thought patterns of being wrong and needing fixing, that I thought there was always more I could do, I could be better. Everything can become unhealthy. Even wellness can be taken to the extreme. We can get so invested in our future selves that we forget to just be as we are and appreciate it.
People that feel deeply, that are more sensitive, are not weak. Man or Woman. To be someone that is sensitive and in touch with their emotions in today’s world is not easy and takes a lot of strength. There can be a harsh connotation with being sensitive and/or emotional that a lot of people then end up hiding that very part of them that attracts human to human in the first place.
We hear so much about what you need to lose or let go of to be a better person. No one ever tells you about accepting all parts of you. Then you can decide what you would like to let go and change. Feeling like there is something wrong with you is what starts the vicious cycle of unhealthy patterns, behaviours, thoughts, emotions. Not feeling good enough just as you are. Losing sight of yourself. Not valuing yourself.
Everyone has gone through a really challenging few months in their own way and it has pushed many into survival mode. Sometimes we cope and sometimes we can regress into old ways of dealing with stress. That’s normal and you learn from it. 2020 seems to be challenging us to become adaptable, flexible and seek solace in those closest to us and the simple pleasures.
As you come out of lockdown, just as you come out of survival mode, you can breathe a little deeper, feel a little freer, emotions can come up. Feelings maybe there, that we couldn’t let ourselves feel over the last couple of months. This is completely normal and just something to be aware of.
To be healthy and functional, we need to be able to feel and connect to all of our emotions at different times, even to the less pleasant ones. Of course, most people in modern life, have far too much fear in their lives rather than too little, and this excess fear can be extremely destructive and crippling. But we do need the capacity to feel fear, just as we need the capacity to feel all of our other “negative” emotions, in certain circumstances.
Biologically and evolutionarily, all “negative,” or distressing emotions, like fear or anxiety, can be thought of as “survival-mode” emotions. They signal to the body and brain that our survival and well-being may be at risk and are specifically designed to motivate behaviours and bodily responses that can most effectively deal with those risks and threats.
Survival-mode states can be said to biologically oppose states of “homeostasis,” which are states of physical and psychological balance. In a state of homeostasis, we sense or perceive no pressing survival-related needs.
In general, when we’re in homeostasis we tend to experience pleasant emotions and feelings, like joy or love, and when we’re in survival mode we tend to experience distressing emotions and feelings. Indeed, the activation of a distressing emotion like fear is precisely what throws our brains and bodies out of balance, into non-homeostasis or survival mode. As unpleasant as some emotions can be, however, every type of negative emotion that we experience is evolutionarily designed to serve one overriding purpose: to help motivate behaviour that will bring us back into homeostasis. Homeostasis is where our bodies and brains want us to be whenever possible.
Fear inevitably becomes visceral — not only your brain, but your whole body will, in effect, become afraid. Your body will likely become noticeably rigid, triggered into survival mode, and yet at the same time part of you will realize that this fear that has “frozen” your body makes no rational sense. The more sensible, rational, healthy part of you is not aligned with, is disconnected from, the part of you that is throwing your body unnecessarily and inappropriately into survival mode.
All disconnection between the brain and body, we could say, is some version of this same dynamic. In modern life, this kind of disconnection is remarkably, shockingly, and tragically common.
So, what does this mean, and how do we help ourselves cope with stress and decrease the amount of time that we are in survival mode or going through the motions? In response to stress, it can be tempting to stay in survival mode, riding the waves of stress like a roller coaster. There are a few things that may help:
1.Connect with Yourself: Survival mode often involves disconnection, and at times disassociation. Connection is key in learning how to live instead of surviving. Some ways to do this is to ask yourself, “What do I need?”. When in survival mode, we often overlook our needs and our emotions to keep “getting by”. What is your body telling you? Are you tired? Have you eaten today? What are your emotions telling you? Are you scared, angry, or sad? Take a moment to connect with yourself and listen to your needs, so that you can respond the way that you want to, versus the way that you may feel compelled to.
2. Connect with Others: Seek support from a friend, loved one, therapist, or safe people who can help you gain connection to yourself and others. Gaining connection with others helps us to gain perspective, ground ourselves, and learn to live instead of survive.
3. Exercise: Exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, is widely recognized as an effective way to help the body cope with stress and the hormones that are involved in the body’s stress response.
4. Be Kind to Yourself: Don’t shame yourself! Remember that you didn’t ask to be stuck in this cycle. Our bodies are masters at adapting, and sometimes they can adapt to the unhealthy environment instead of adapting in the way that is most helpful for us. When our bodies are stuck in a cycle of survival mode, it is important to know that it takes time to break this cycle.
As an important note in this conversation, although many would like to stop the cycle of survival mode, it may not always be that easy. For individuals who have dealt with chronic stress, survival mode may be an automatic response to stressors, even when it isn’t needed. There is beauty in our body’s ability to adapt, but if a body is flooded with constant stress a stress response may become its normal state. Rewiring and supporting the nervous system in getting out of this cycle can take time.
Regardless of what has caused us to struggle with being in survival mode, or how long we have been surviving this way, we can all support our bodies and minds to learn how to live instead of survive.