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Letting Go of “Survival Mode”

Have you ever heard of the television show survivor?  It’s a reality tv show where a group of strangers are placed on an island and expected to fend for themselves.  They must find their own food, water, shelter, even fire.  The members are pushed to physical and mental exhaustion while also being expected to complete challenges and tests that look at their physical ability, endurance, and mental toughness.  As a result, everything has a sense of urgency.  You must rush to find food because it’s not provided for you.  When you get that food, you have to conserve it, because you don’t know when you’ll have food again.  And while you’re eating that food, you can’t even enjoy it because you are stressing about how to get food again.  This repeated stress that prepares you for adversities but doesn’t allow you to think, grow, or flourish is the hallmark of survival mode.  

As a licensed clinical psychologist, I can tell you wholeheartedly that individuals are significantly more fulfilled when they are able to thrive, not simply survive.  If we break things down to the necessities to survive you must have food, water, shelter, and some form of social connections to others.  However, that is the bare minimum. If we focused on solely surviving you would eat the same meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, because you are surviving.  You would disregard your standards of living, because if you have a roof over your head you are surviving.  You would even allow your relationships to remain stagnant with low expectations because you are surviving.  I know what you’re thinking, why would anyone willingly do that?  The answer is, they don’t.  Most of the time people do not realize that they have entered survival mode because they have been there for so long.  Survival mode is a stress response.  Our body responds to stress in multiple ways to make sure that we are protected and able to make it out of the situation.  However, there is a significantly different bodily response to acute stress, which is intense and short, and chronic stress which is recurring.  While it is helpful for our bodies to enter survival mode when met with immediate threats, remaining in survival mode because of experiencing chronic stress causes our body to break down.

What are the Signs of Survival Mode?

Low frustration tolerance is a sign that you are operating in survival mode.  When your body is doing so much to keep you in a state of balance despite being faced with chronic stressors, one inconvenience can cause you to want to flip a table.  If you are having multiple instances where your responses are greater than what you think the moment allowed or if you are being surprised by your reaction to certain events, then you may be operating in survival mode. It is easy to get to a 10 on the anger scale when you are waking up at an eight each and every day due to survival mode.

RELATED: Session 293: Black Women & The Superwoman Schema

Having difficulty focusing on the future is another sign that you are operating in survival mode.  When you are in survival mode you can’t see past your nose regarding next steps.  When you are constantly being bombarded with difficult events your sense of urgency is elevated.  You will likely operate in a moment by moment thought process.  As a result, you are unable to think about a week, a month, or even a year into the future because you are trying to survive the significant events of the day. 

Constant exhaustion is a sign that you are operating in survival mode (it is also a warning sign for a host of medical and mental health issues).  In addition to feeling tired you may realize that the weekends are not enough time to recoup from the week’s events.  When your body is handling such a heavy load, it will take more time for it to be restored to its typical potential.  You could also realize that you are experiencing sleep disruptions.  This can include sleeping the same number of hours that you always have and it does not rejuvenate you or you may having greater difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

When it comes to survival syndrome and any health difficulties for that matter, you will likely experience a change in physical symptoms.  You may often feel like you have an increased heart rate that is difficult to settle down.  For example, you heart is racing as though you took a jog and yet you can’t pinpoint what triggers it.  Additionally, operating in survival mode makes your body use more energy to maintain some form of balance.  As a result, certain bodily systems suffer, such as your immune system and without the support it needs, you will get sick more often.  

Finally, a decline in your executive functioning skills can also be a sign that you are operating in survival mode.  Executive functioning includes a set of skills that are used daily to help you complete tasks including skills such as self-control, mental flexibility, which allows you to transition between tasks, and working memory, which allows you to hold and manipulate information in your mind.  When it is malfunctioning, you may misplace items frequently, have difficulty initating or completing tasks, and struggle with organization.  Your brain cannot focus on remember or completing tasks when it is battling stressors coming at it from left and right.  You only have so much energy to divert to different tasks.

RELATED: Session 258: The Importance of Black Joy

How do I Overcome Survival Mode?

If you are reading this article, SURPRISE, you have already completed the first step towards overcoming survival mode and that is to educate yourself.  You cannot heal what you do not reveal.  Educating yourself on signs and symptoms will help you to realize what resonates with you.  When it comes to mental health you must start with knowledge, without judgment, then you can acknowledge ways that it is impacting you, then you can address what is impacting you.

Next, you can work on identifying where the stress is coming from by asking yourself questions such as:

  • How long have the identified symptoms been present?
    • This can help you identify whether it is a recent transition that has sparked these feelings such as a new job, moving to a new environment, or a new relationship or if they are the result of a traumatic event that happened to you and resulted in survival mode being your default setting.
  • Do I notice that these symptoms increase or decrease we around certain people or in certain environments?
    • If you notice an increase in symptoms, that is a sign that the person, place, or thing is a risk factor or trigger.  However, if you notice a decrease in symptoms, that can be a sign that the person, place, or thing is a protective factor, meaning that it contributes to improving your well being.

Identify whether there are things that can be adjusted regarding the stressors.  Can you change the length of exposure to the stressor.  If it is a work environment, is it possible to go hybrid, do you need to create firmer boundaries regarding when you are accessible for work, should you skip the happy hour, or do you need to identify an exit strategy if the environment is a significant detriment to your well being? Exit strategies are not possible for everyone.  It is a blessing if you can leave a chronically stressful situation whether that is next week or next year.  So if it is not possible, try the previously listed strategies.

Increase access to coping skills.  You may have had coping skills that worked for you previously and you have fallen off for one reason or another, that’s ok, it happens to the best of us.  I often suggest writing down coping skills that worked for you previously to see if they provide your with some form of mental relieve.  If they no longer work, then it is time to identify new skills.  This may feel overwhelming but luckily there are many ways that you can find coping skills that fit your preferences.  You can identify coping skills according to the five senses such as aromatherapy for scent or crocheting for touch (I know this seems like an odd one by the combination of focusing on completing a task alongside being soothed by soft yarn is a double whammy when it comes to coping).  You can also utilize mindfulness skills such as meditating, emotion identification skills which can include journaling, distractors which can include going for a walk, and coping skills that utilize your support system.

Finally, remember to be kind to yourself.  There is a difference between providing yourself with grace and making excuses.  SO many times, people disregard their needs under the guise of making excuses for yourself.  This can be for many reasons such genuinely feeling that they you do not deserve rest, glorifying the struggle of being in survival mode, or because sometimes we are so used to having our feelings disregarded that we start to do it ourselves.  No matter the reason behind it, your needs are no less valid simply because they are different than someone else’s.  Someone else may need 10 minutes to regulate themselves following a stressful moment and you may need 20.  Both of your needs are valid and should be honored.


Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
Order Now

Looking for the UK Edition?
Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here