If you feel like you’re just barely keeping your head above water these days, you’re not alone. Feelings of burnout, stress, and loneliness are at an all-time high—causing people to enter into survival mode. Below, experts explain the signs you’re operating in survival mode and how to break out of it ASAP.
Between the lingering after-effects of the COVID pandemic, economic turmoil, and everything else we’ve all been dealing with over the last few years, it can sometimes feel like you’re operating in survival mode. Rest assured, you’re not alone: Statistics show rates of burnout and stress at an all-time high, according to the American Psychological Association.
Unfortunately, once you reach the point of “survival mode,” where you feel like you’re on autopilot and are simply trying to make it through each day, it can be hard to shake. It may also be difficult to even recognize once you’ve reached this point where your stressors are no longer “normal,” per se, but rather impeding on your ability to lead a healthy, fulfilling life.
Sound familiar? We chatted with experts about how to identify if you’re in survival mode and how to get out of survival mode.
What is Survival Mode?
When we’re operating in survival mode, we’re in a state of fight, flight, or freeze response, explains Amy Robbins, PsyD., psychologist and BIÂN Chicago’s Director of Mental Health. This fight-or-flight response is derived from our ancestors who actually had to flee from potentially deadly scenarios on the regular. Despite how far into the future we’ve come, Dr. Robbins explains that our primitive brains have not evolved to keep up with the current stressors of daily life. “We often believe that certain situations are more threatening than they actually are because our systems are wired to perceive any stress as a life-or-death situation,” she says. “Even when there’s nothing truly serious at stake, the primitive parts of our brain (the hypothalamus, amygdala, and other structures) cannot differentiate the severity of the threat; therefore it sends a message to our body that we need to be in this state of survival.”
Unfortunately, certain people are more prone to operating in survival mode than others, with the biggest trigger being sustained exposure to a trauma, according to Johanna Kaplan, PhD, clinical child psychologist, and director of the Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. “When someone is exposed to trauma, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol remain elevated and can actually have a devastating effect on the hippocampus (your recording button of the brain),” she says. “The good news, however, is that the hippocampus regenerates once stress decreases, and cortisol levels decrease.”
Anyone could experience an event or stressor that could make them shift into survival mode—not just those who’ve been exposed to severe trauma—which is likely why we’re seeing rates of stress skyrocket across Americans post-pandemic. In fact, it’s a phenomenon known as “collective trauma,” and it tends to affect young people at higher rates, according to licensed therapist Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, owner and founder of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles. “Young people face so much pressure to succeed and thrive in a society and economy that doesn’t necessarily provide the means to do so,” she says. “And this is all on top of extreme weather events due to climate change, volatile global conflict, political and social unrest, and a health care system that could send families into bankruptcy after just one medical emergency.” It’s a recipe for survival mode.
Identifying Survival Mode Symptoms
The unfortunate reality is that it can be hard to acknowledge when we’ve reached this survival status, mainly because we become so focused on making it through day after day. Here, experts share some warning signs you’re in survival mode.
1. Increasingly Sensitive and Reactive
When someone is in survival mode, their brain effectively functions like they’re constantly under attack, which makes it difficult to manage their emotional responses, explains Lurie. “They may discover that they’re more easily agitated or irritable or even struggle to control their emotions in response to things that previously wouldn’t have phased them, finding themselves more likely to be in tears or a state of rage,” she says. “It is also not uncommon for people stuck in survival mode to experience higher instances of anxiety and depression.”
2. Problems With Memory or Focus
When someone is in survival mode, they have difficulty operating certain parts of their brain, namely their prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in cognitive functions, explains Lurie. “Brain fog and memory challenges are common in many people’s experience with survival mode, so you may temporarily lose the ability to think clearly, problem solve, manage your time, stay on task, and easily access your memory.”
3. Difficulty Keeping Up with Basic Needs
As ironic as it sounds, one major symptom of survival mode is being more prone to neglect some of our most basic needs. This can result in poor hygiene, inconsistent sleep, missed meals, or difficulty performing basic housekeeping activities like washing the dishes warns Lurie. “Survival mode can leave a person in such a heightened state of anxiety that, ultimately, it can create a type of decision paralysis around even the most menial of tasks,” she says. So, if you’re struggling just to keep your head above water, it’s not laziness—it could be a sign you’re operating in survival mode.
4. Everything Feels Very Urgent
If you’re feeling an overwhelming sense of urgency to complete certain tasks no matter how small or simple they may be, you may be operating in survival mode, according to Kiara Luna, LMHC, psychotherapist and founder of Knew You Psychotherapy. “We often get into this state where we feel a sense of urgency over non-urgent items because we’re operating from fear, anxiety, and even anger. Those emotions are sending a signal to our brain that we must act now,” she says.
How to Get Out of Survival Mode
If you think you might be living your life in survival mode, you’re probably looking to get out of it ASAP. Here’s where to get started.
Acknowledge You’re In It
To get out of survival mode, you may first need to acknowledge that you’re actually in it, notes Lurie. “Take an honest inventory of your life and current circumstances, and consider how you’ve been coping,” she says. “Consider what might be going on right now that may contribute to feelings of overwhelm, prompting you to just focus on surviving.” Understanding what is actually happening in your life to get you into this state is essential before we can take concrete steps to create change.
Show Yourself Compassion
All of the survival mode symptoms (brain fog, forgetfulness, irritability, difficulty with basic needs) can be frustrating to deal with. But it’s important to be nice to yourself through it. “If you’re running on empty and feeling overwhelmed, the last thing you need is to be critical of yourself for trying to cope,” says Lurie. “Be kind and gentle with yourself, just as you would with anyone struggling due to their circumstances and who finds themselves in survival mode.” And remember that many people are also going through the same thing right now, whether you can see it or not.
Try to Slow Yourself Down
When you’re in survival mode, you might find yourself going from one thing in your life to the next without much regard for how you’re doing—or feeling. In an attempt to get yourself out of this way of living, Lurie suggests trying to intentionally slow yourself down will help your brain and body. “Connecting with the external world by observing what you see, hear, and smell is one type of grounding that can help your nervous system better regulate,” she adds.
Survival mode disrupts your body’s natural balance, keeping you in a state of hyperarousal and fear. Exercise can be a productive way to release this energy. Plus, moving your body releases feel-good endorphins, which can boost your mood. Exercise also can help improve sleep: Moderate to vigorous exercise can increase sleep quality for adults by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and decreasing the amount of time they lie awake in bed during the night, according to Sleep Foundation.
When you’re in survival mode, your body senses that you’re in danger. One effective way to challenge this thought it to target the vagus nerve (the longest nerve in the body). Taking deep breaths can actually help stimulate and relax your vagus nerve—and allow your nervous system to regulate. The deep breaths will also decrease cortisol and adrenaline levels so that your body can recognize it’s not in danger anymore. Try inhaling for four seconds, holding for four seconds, and exhaling for four seconds. Other ways to stimulate your vagus nerve include humming, singing, or cold water therapy.
Turn Off the News
Even if you’re someone who likes to stay on top of current events, sometimes the news can be overwhelmingly depressing. For this reason, Dr. Robbins recommends trying to avoid over-exposing yourself. “We have to be able to control what we are feeding our brains, and the news is toxic for us,” she says. “The scarier it is, the more people watch it—but the worse it is for our brains.” Try watching something else on TV or setting time limits on your phone apps to stop you from doom scrolling.
Indulge In a Little TLC
You can never downplay the importance of self-care. In fact, it is integral to your overall health and well-being, notes Luna. Whether it’s a nice long shower, booking yourself a facial or a massage, or curling up on the couch with a good book, taking time for yourself should never be something you do just because you have extra time—sometimes you have to actually carve out that time for yourself.
At the end of the day, we’re all trying to do our best. Some days are more challenging than others, but if you’re finding yourself feeling as though you’re drowning, whether it’s as a result of your work, social life or family issues, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional who can help provide you with the tools and strategies you need to get yourself in a better place.