Survival Mode: How Does It Get Triggered? And How Do You Get Out of it?

Written by: Jorinde Berben
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Over a year ago I wrote this post about being overwhelmed, suffering from anxiety and the small steps you can take to help you cope. Reading it now, I think it would’ve been good to follow my own advice a little more, because my survival instinct still kicks in on a regular basis.

This week, my son is home due to a Covid infection in his school. He is fine, and actually happy about it (“I’ve never been in quarantine before Mommy!”), but for me it means a change in pace again. As I was learning to focus on feeling what I need, what my body and my mind require from me, I now find myself shifting into a completely different gear again. I notice that tasks that seemed impossible before suddenly get done again. I do more in a day than I did when he still went to school, but I also notice that it comes at a price. Sure, I manage to make soup for lunch and play games with him, but I also notice that I get irritated really fast and that my mind is starting to churn out familiar thought loops again.

In survival mode, we get sucked into thinking that our life is really hard, and that we need to hold on to it tightly. We try to make the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month. Any road block is seen as a major hurdle and takes a ton of energy to tackle. To get through it, we use adrenaline (as I mentioned in this previous post on living on adrenaline).

I’ve been able to recognize this state in myself in hindsight, but it was only this week that I noticed, as I was unloading the dishwasher and felt my head throb, how this state for me is connected to being around my children. Somehow, it’s my default mode when I’m looking after them, especially when I’m alone with them.

I’m not sure how it got to this, but I recognize it from the days and months after my son’s birth. I was taking care of two small children, including an infant, for most of the day while the other adults were out at work. It was demanding, and I don’t think I felt completely up to the task. Time alone with my children became something I had to endure until someone came home who could help me cope. I believe this initial blueprint got stuck and has been carried out over and over again.

For me it’s being around my children, but for other people survival mode may be triggered by any number of things that you may find overwhelming and that put you in a state where it becomes hard to see beyond the next hurdle. Maybe it’s a demanding job, shaky finances, a family conflict, a rocky relationship. Maybe it’s the Covid measures that leave you completely in shambles. It can get triggered by a number of different situations and we often don’t see it in ourselves. In this wonderful podcast episode, Brené Brown talks about how some people over-function and others under-function in anxiety. When you notice that you are going into any of these patterns of behavior, it can be easier to catch yourself going into survival mode.

Now, I obviously don’t want the time I spend alone with my children to be marked by stress and anxiety. I want to spend time with them in a relaxed and joyful way, without worrying about what’s going to go wrong or a mile-long to-do list in my head. I want to unlearn this response I have to spending time with them, so I can learn to enjoy the day with them.

Luckily, there are times when I already do enjoy time alone with my little ones. Story time is one of those moments, as is the last cuddle and chat in bed at night. Enjoying a meal with them can be a joyful and relaxing experience as well. What I notice these moments have in common, is that they are very structured and thus feel safe to me. My children’s behaviour at these times is very predictable: they eat, cuddle or listen. They are also times in which I know exactly what I need to do in that particular moment. In the evening, there’s usually nothing else on my to-do list that I need to do (I’ve managed to let go of it by then), so I don’t need to worry about it either. It leaves my mind free to truly be in the moment.

So how can I take these insights and use them to help me in situations that are less easy to predict and control? Do I find ways to try and gain some control there? Or should I focus on letting go of that desire for control instead? Perhaps it’s a two-way street: on the one hand I can try to structure my day in a way that allows me to foresee what I need to do and plan it, so I don’t worry about it; on the other hand I can practice techniques to calm my nervous system when I notice myself over-functioning. I could learn to press that pause button and to feel what it is I really need, even if there’s no time for it in that particular moment. I’ve often found that checking in with myself is already very helpful in calming myself, because it gives the implicit message that I’ll find a moment to meet my own needs later.

Awareness is the first step to change. I don’t want to survive this life, I want to live it and enjoy every moment I spend with my children (okay, maybe not EVERY moment, but you get the idea). As painful as this realisation is, I’m happy that I’ve at least caught on to it so I can take the next step.

What triggers your survival mode? What makes you anxious? Do you over-function or under-function? What helps you get out of survival mode?

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