Imagine this: You made it to work, but you’re just doing the bare minimum. You feed yourself, but it’s primarily sandwiches, fast food, or other low-effort meals. Your house is a mess, but you manage to do your laundry once a week and wash a plate so you can eat. It seems like you are floating through life, managing the things you HAVE to do, but unable to find the time and energy to do anything else, even the things you enjoy? If this sounds familiar, you may be living in survival mode.
What is Survival Mode?
Survival mode is a new way of saying you’re barely getting by. It gets its name from video games that have a super hard mode where the main goal is just not to die. I couldn’t find a clinical paper that describes survival mode, so it appears to be a term created by the public to describe a difficult time rather than doctors or mental health professionals.
However, therapists are seeing many patients who describe their lives as survival mode, and many have likened it to hyperarousal of evolutionary stress responders.
Survival mode is an evolutionary stress response related to our fight or flight response.
According to Katie Weidenkeller, Licensed Professional Counselor, MS, LPC, Fight, flight, or freeze are the typical responses when faced with a crisis or trauma. Your body will either prepare itself to fight, run away, or completely freeze in the moment and not know what to do. When your body is consistently exposed to trauma or stress, someone might be in a constant state of this fight, flight, or freeze.
Weidenkeller goes on to say, “when your body is in a constant state of survival mode, you aren’t allowing it to return to its normal function, and as a result, you can feel exhausted, disconnected, or detached from life.”
What Does Survival Mode Look Like?
Each person experiences survival mode differently, which relates to how they handle stress. But in most cases, you will experience typical physiological stress responses like increased heart rate, muscle twitching, agitation, irritability, depression, and more. People may avoid their responsibilities, eat more, spend more, or even sleep more in response. The VA Healthcare Center for Integrated Health has an excellent fact sheet on common stress responses.
Kevin Coleman, the owner of Connected Therapy Practice in Columbia, South Carolina, describes survival mode as a state where a person makes decisions with only the short-term consequences in mind because they are so desperate for short-term relief. So, when in survival mode, we can’t think about how to plan and prepare for the best long-term result because we’re desperate to feel a little bit better in the short term. It’s like our subconscious worries we might die (emotionally speaking).
Why Are We Living in Survival Mode?
The past few years have been hard. There’s been a global pandemic, a massive divide in the US on politics, the J6 hearings, wildfires, abolishment of rights, hurricanes, explosions, racial tensions – the list of things we have dealt with in recent years seems endless. I can’t remember another time that brought so much turmoil and uncertainty. I’m shocked that more people aren’t living in survival mode.
Survival mode can impact anyone. Many therapists haven’t seen a difference between patients with previous trauma and survivor mode, while others have uncovered patterns. No clinical research connects previous mental health diagnoses and survival mode, but some therapists see patterns in their practices.
Survival Mode and Mental Illness
Leah Ehinger, a therapist working in San Francisco, finds that the people she sees most impacted by survival mode are people who are affected deeply in their early childhood through forms of trauma. This early childhood trauma caused the body to maintain a level of non-safety early on, which was the foundation on which this person has grown older. Add on financial instability or other life stressors, and this person may chronically feel as if they are only surviving.
Christina P. Kantzavelos, LCSW of Begin Within Today, finds that clients with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or who experience panic disorders, panic attacks, and chronic anxiety may be in chronic fight-or-flight mode. Often their nervous system is dysregulated. These patients may be more susceptible to survival mode.
Dr. Kevin Colemon wouldn’t say that being in survival mode relates to one clinical diagnosis more than any other because any mental disorder can escalate to the point where life feels unmanageable. However, it is possible that people with more intense emotions can experience survival mode more than other people, because they may reach their threshold of what is unbearable quicker than other people.
As you can see, survival mode can affect anyone. Therapists have helped people with various mental illnesses or past trauma work through survival mode but have also helped patients without any history.
If you are struggling, there is no shame and seeing someone about it.
How Do You Stop Living in Survival Mode?
I just realized that I’m living in survival mode and pledging to stop here and now. But it isn’t always as easy as saying, “I’m done.” That’s fighting thousands of years of evolutionary response. It isn’t impossible to get out of survival mode, though.
Here are some of the things I’m doing that should help – hopefully, you can find items on this list that will also help you.
See a Doctor
I already mentioned that I’m seeing a doctor for my anxiety and depression, but I honestly think it’s one of the best things you can do. You don’t have to struggle; you can get help. Most therapists I interviewed for this piece mentioned seeking help as the number one thing to do if you’re struggling with survival mode.
Now I know how much of an immense privilege it is to see a doctor in a place without universal healthcare, so I also asked those therapists what else people can do if they are struggling and can’t afford professional help.
Ask for Help from Family and Friends
Sometimes, we are in survival mode because we take on too much. Maybe you thought you could handle working full time while watching the kids go to school remotely while keeping the house clean and the family fed. But the reality is that’s a lot for anyone to handle. It’s okay to ask for help from a partner, friend, or family member.
If you have extra cash, you can even pay for it. Hiring a cleaning service to come twice a week might make all the difference. A virtual assistant could help you automate some computer tasks. Buying pre-cooked easy dinners might give you more time to focus on other tasks. It’s okay to outsource the things that you can’t do yourself.
As Doctor Coleman remarked, you need support to get through a period where life feels unmanageable, so call on those people who love you to help you get through, and before you know it, you’ll be enjoying life and not just surviving but thriving.
Give Yourself a Break
It’s okay not to be able to do everything. If you don’t have anyone to help you, it’s okay to let some things slide. The laundry doesn’t need to be folded. The floor doesn’t need to be swept; the toys don’t need to be put away. Identify the things that don’t matter as much and let them go.
It’s also okay to do some things poorly. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, so even if you can’t manage to clean the whole house, wiping the counter is a start. If exercising for 30 minutes is out of reach, do 10 minutes of stretching. It’s worth it.
Weidenkeller added, “It’s important to be kind to yourself and give yourself grace and compassion. It’s not your fault, and in time, your body will be able to adapt to the “new” way of responding to stressors.”
Take Time for Self-Care
Once you have permission for a break, you should spend that time in relaxation mode. Whether you have 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or more, there is a method of self-care that can help you feel better about your day. Incorporate a self-care Sunday into your daily routine.
Meditation is one of the top ways to engage in self-care. Andrea Shipley, Licensed Professional Counselor in Virginia and founder of Alive Explorations, says practicing mindfulness is the best way to cope with survival mode. She encourages clients first to pause and observe the present moment’s reality. Next, pay attention to your breath. Focusing on breathing helps pull your attention back into your body and away from mental stress, which is why meditation concentrates so much on deep breathing.
Mediation and other self-care activities can help you self-soothe and release healing chemicals into the body.
Other self-care activities you can engage in to help you manage stress include:
- Getting Outside
- Getting lost in a favorite book or movie
- Engaging with friends and family
Plan and Organize Your Time
Planning my day has helped me break through survival mode and get more done than basic survival. If I write a to-do list, I’m more likely to focus on the list and accomplish the tasks on it. If I write down what I’m going to achieve in a planner or a journal, I’m more likely to stick to it.
Writing my day out like this has helped me stay productive even when I feel like I can’t accomplish anything. It’s been a big help.
Another big thing that’s helped me is finding people who are feeling similar and talking with them. I’ve discussed my feelings with my best friend over our weekly zoom call and spoke with folks on social media who are going through similar emotions. And you know? It helps.
Realizing that a ton of people are going through exactly what you are doesn’t make the struggles go away, but it does help to know you aren’t alone. And sometimes, those we talk to have developed new coping methods we never considered. My best friend is the one who made me realize that I’ve been in survival mode these past few months. Twitter has been helping me cope. Commiserating with like-minded people enables you to feel a sense of community and engagement, which can be comforting in such trying times.
Get Off Social Media
It’s funny that I’m saying to get rid of social media right after I said my Twitter friends have been helping me cope. But I don’t mean to get rid of all social media. I mean, get rid of toxic social media. Facebook is the worst offender to me. I have old friends and family members who have bought into the most insane theories out there, and constantly seeing their hateful rhetoric makes me incredibly anxious. But it’s like a train wreck – I can’t look away. I must read the nasty comments, understand where they are getting this crazy information, and even respond with some sanity.
It’s not worth it. As much as I try to be reasonable and diplomatic, some folks are too far in. They don’t want to hear anything that contradicts their worldview. They want to call everyone who disagrees with them evil. I’ve tried so hard not to lock myself in a bubble surrounded only by those who agree with me, but unfortunately, that’s done nothing but stress me out. But I’m just taking a break from the platform instead of blocking folks I disagree with. Hopefully, we will find ways to bridge the gap in the future.
You Can Cope with Survival Mode
Although there’s no clinical definition of survival mode, it’s an authentic experience. You don’t have to struggle alone.
There is help for what you are experiencing, both with therapy, within your community, and within you. Don’t be afraid to seek it out and start living again.