Life can be busy and chaotic. Many of us are experts at being in “survival mode” in that we have learned to go through the motions in life and do what we need to do. This might be an effective way to complete tasks and navigate our hectic schedules, yet what are the consequences of going through life in survival mode?
Put succinctly, survival mode involves adaptive physiological changes in our body that help us respond to the stressors that we are faced with. When we experience stress, a sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses occur in our body that allow us to respond by preparing them to fight, flight, or freeze (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018).
Consider an example of the value of the body’s stress response system. One day as you are taking a hike through the woods, you hear a rustling in the brush that appears to be coming towards you. Perhaps it is a bear? In response to this noise, your body commences a stress response, sending a cascade of adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones to give you the energy needed to fight or flight the incoming danger.
Although this story may seem to be one that is hard to relate to, consider the potential “bears” or "dangerous animals" in your life. When you face the "dangerous animals" in your life of looming deadlines, challenges at work, relational challenges, financial difficulties, or other stressors, have you experienced the surge of hormones that we are discussing that give you the energy you need to go through the motions? The stress response is adaptive and important to help us respond to stressors, yet going through the motions for too long is unsustainable and can leave us feeling disconnected, exhausted, and detached from life.
When we are "surviving" too long, we can feel the effects it has on us. In fact, research shows that chronic stress and chronic exposure to stress hormones can even be harmful (Hormone Health Network, 2018). At times, our body may overreact to stressors that we experience. What if our body is responding to a situation as if it is a “bear" when it is in fact a “rabbit?"
A frequent stress response and overexposure to stress-response hormones can take a toll on the body, take a toll on our emotional health, impact our relationships, lead to a number of medical issues, and increase risk for anxiety and depression (Harvard, 2018; Hormone Health Network, 2018). As with all things, too much of this good thing, or our body working to protect us and help us survive, can actually become a bad thing.
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 and white-knuckling our way through life. There are a few things that may help us on our journeys:
- Connect with yourself: Survival mode often involves disconnection, and at times disassociation. Connection is key in learning how to live instead of survive. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, like those who have a history of complex trauma, 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 or trauma, a stress response may become its normal state. Rewiring and supporting the nervous system in getting out of this cycle can take time; especially if it was wired this way from a young age.
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 learn to help our bodies and minds determine what the “bears” are in our lives, what the “rabbits” are, and learn how to live instead of survive.
Kolber, A. (2020). Try softer: A fresh approach to move us out of anxiety, stress, and survival mode.
What is adrenaline? (2018). Hormone health network. https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-…
Understanding the stress response. (2018). Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress…