Are You Living in a Survival Mode?
In the face of danger, it’s important to recognise the threat and respond to it appropriately to survive. However, our bodies aren’t good at differentiating between an actual threat and a perceived threat and might activate the survival mode even when we are perfectly safe. If you feel like you can’t be at your best no matter how hard you try and struggle to stay present, you might be living in a survival mode.
What Does it Mean to Live in a Survival Mode?
Survival mode is a coping mechanism and an adaptive response that allows us to deal with stressors and demands of everyday life; deadlines, health problems, financial difficulties and so on. When your body senses a potential danger, the fight-or-flight response becomes activated and gives you the energy to overcome these challenges. However, the more frequently you get into that mode, the harder it is for you to live in the present and you might end up running on autopilot. However, this process isn’t just automatic but overrules other cognitive and emotional abilities as the most important thing becomes survival; this makes it difficult to navigate your responsibilities and keep relationships with other people. While survival mode can be a reaction to chronic stress, it might also indicate that a past traumatic experience hasn’t been processed yet.
Signs that You Live in a Survival Mode
- You can’t concentrate
It feels like you’re experiencing the brain fog that never lifts. You might struggle to complete your tasks and pay attention to what you’re watching or reading.
- You scan your surroundings for the signs of danger
You’re on edge even if there’s nothing you should feel stressed about right now. You might become hypervigilant and more sensitive to noise or other people’s comments. For example, knocking on the door might make you jump and constructive criticism might cause a meltdown.
- You feel exhausted
You might find that every activity requires more effort than before and you feel exhausted even though you get enough sleep. As a result, you might get sick more often and experience unexplained pains.
- You can’t control your emotions
When you’re in a survival mode, it pretty much means that all other of your brain’s abilities aren’t working properly so you might struggle with managing your emotions. You might be more impulsive and have an increased emotional reaction to what’s going on in your life.
- You experience memory problems
Do you find it difficult to remember what you did yesterday, let alone a week ago? Do you often go to another room and forget what you were about to do? You might also struggle to be fully present when interacting with other people and hear the other person talking but not really taking it in.
- You lose interest in previously enjoyed activities
You might neglect your hobbies because you’re too emotionally numb to feel enthusiastic about anything.
How to Stop Living in a Survival Mode
According to survival mode theory, a plan to deactivate the mode should include promoting a sense of safety, a sense of self, calming, connectedness and hope. 
Here are a few tips that can help you become your old self again:
- Recognise that you’re in a survival mode
If you’ve come this far, it means that the survival mode checklist resonates with you, which is a step in the right direction. Acknowledging that you’re vulnerable makes it easier to work on what you don’t like about your current situation.
- Consider taking days off work
It’s not ideal but being in a survival mode means that your productivity decreases and the more you force yourself to work through exhaustion, the more likely you’re to eventually burn out.
- Reconnect with your hobbies
While you might really not feel like doing anything right now, there are some activities you used to find enjoyable that can help you decrease emotional numbness and reshape your sense of self. But remember to take baby steps. For example, if you like dancing, start by moving around while you’re cleaning and if you like drawing, let yourself create without a goal in mind. All you have to do is to try, it doesn’t matter if what you do is perfect or ‘good enough’.
- Be kind to yourself
Remember that survival mode is a natural response to overwhelming stress. It doesn’t mean that you’re failing or that you aren’t enough – your body is simply doing its best to cope. Instead of pushing yourself to try harder, make it your goal to be more self-compassionate. Whenever you find yourself thinking negative thoughts such as ‘I’m useless’ or ‘I need to do better’, try to adopt a more realistic mindset. Tell yourself that sometimes the most productive thing you can do is have a break and that it’s okay not to always be at your best.
- Practice being mindful
While it might seem that survival mode protects you against the stressors and allows you to overcome obstacles, in reality it prevents you from living your life to the fullest. If you want to learn how to live and not just react, you have to become more mindful and grounded in the present. Try to engage in one activity at a time and avoid thinking about what you’re going to do next; simply let yourself immerse in the current moment and focus on the way your body moves, your surroundings, etc. You can also introduce relaxation techniques to your routine. Simply inhaling with your mouth closed and exhaling with your mouth open can decrease your stress and help you become aware of your thoughts without becoming too overwhelmed.
- Strengthen your support network
Living on autopilot can make you feel detached from reality and sometimes like you don’t really exist. To become more connected to the world around you, work on your relationships with other people. Cherish connections you already have by checking up on your friends, letting them know that you appreciate their presence in your life and arranging meetings once in a while. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it – it’s important that you don’t feel like you’re alone with your problems. Connection, even if it requires vulnerability, is what makes life worth living.
- Keep a gratitude diary
Hope is one of the most powerful feelings. As long as you have hope, you can get better. When you live in a survival mode, it might be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel but you can train yourself to be more positive by keeping a gratitude diary where you record good things that are going on in your life. And if there seem to be none, try to think of something. You can be grateful for your favourite book, the weather or a cute dog you saw at the park. It doesn’t matter how big or small the items on the list are as long as they can positively influence your mood.
Getting out of the survival mode isn’t easy and there might be some past experiences you have to work through first. If you feel like you need to delve deeper into the issue, contact My Family Psychologist for a confidential chat and see how we can help