How to recognise when you are in survival mode (and how to break free)

If ‘barely getting by’ is where you’re at right now, you could be dwelling in ‘survival mode’

Here’s something that all of us can likely agree on: it can be really tough out there. The shared pressure to do and be more, the waves of bad news that flood our lives, and the personal challenges that we’re forced to face – it’s a wonder we’re able to manage at all. Except, actually, sometimes we aren’t. Sometimes, stress tips us over the edge, and our bodies respond.

“In simple terms, ‘survival mode’ is our body’s automatic response to danger,” counselor and psychotherapist Belinda Sidhu says. It’s what has helped us to survive, to get to this point. This response begins in one of the oldest parts of the brain, the limbic system.

When someone confronts danger, the eyes, ears, or both send information to the amygdala – a part of the brain which can act a bit like an alarm system.

The amygdala interprets those images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus – which functions a bit like a control center communicating with the rest of the body through our nervous system – and controls hormone release. This can lead to that fight/flight/freeze response.

This response can be absolutely helpful and aid in our survival if, for example, we’re crossing the road and a car turns a corner unexpectedly. Yet, it’s not so helpful if we’re experiencing it when a stressful email pops up. However, the unfortunate element of the amygdala is that it cannot differentiate between the two ‘dangers’, which may be an actual threat to our survival.

As Belinda explains, stress is a very normal part of life – and it can even help motivate us, in small doses – but, over time, it can reach a tipping point where it begins to detrimentally affect your life, making it almost impossible for you to concentrate on anything else. At this point, you could enter ‘survival mode’.

“When we go into ‘survival mode’ – or experience the fight/flight/freeze responses – we may notice a number of physical, emotional, and behavioral signs,” Belinda explains. As she sees it, these include…

Physical signs: Aches and pains, trouble sleeping, muscle tension, or jaw clenching. You may find yourself grinding your teeth in your sleep and waking up with a sore jaw. Stomach or digestive problems, bloating, high blood pressure, or headaches.

Emotional signs: Being more emotional than usual – maybe more irritable, getting angry or frustrated at things that wouldn’t usually cause you anger, feeling overwhelmed, or on edge.

Behavioral signs: You may have trouble keeping track of things, making decisions, solving problems, focusing or getting your work done. You might find yourself procrastinating and avoiding your responsibilities. You may be ‘self-prescribing’ – drinking more alcohol than usual, or using substances such as recreational or prescription drugs.

As Belinda points out, the long-term effects of stress can be really serious. Stress can lead to other mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, as well as affect our physical health, as explored above. But, what’s more, studies have even shown that chronic stress can have a shrinking effect on the part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for memory and learning. It can also affect the size of the amygdala, making our brain even more receptive to stress – catching us in a vicious cycle.

So, how do we break out of it? “Take account of your current situation,” Belinda says. Try asking yourself, ‘What’s flowing into my stress bucket?’ Spend a few minutes thinking and noting down what’s currently going on, and then think about healthy coping mechanisms you could use to help open the tap to let some of that stress flow out.”

Belinda also suggests that this is the time to set some boundaries. Have any clues, about which part of your life is causing the stress, come up following her questions? Perhaps you’re overstretched at work, or your home life is getting on top of you. It can be really hard to put that boundary in place, though, and Belinda recommends being clear with the language you use (turn to p71 for tips on that), and holding your ground if a boundary is crossed.

“There is a growing body of research suggesting mindfulness can help reduce stress and anxiety,” Belinda adds. “There is so much out there on mindfulness, from YouTube videos to mindful apps such as Calm and Headspace.” Finally, Belinda suggests taking a holistic view of your well-being: are you moving your body? Are you eating well? Both things that can have a huge impact on our overall well-being.

All that said, sometimes we all need a helping hand. So, if you’re stuck in ‘survival mode’, and you can’t see a way out, reach out to your GP or a mental health professional. Because we all deserve the chance to live to our full potential.


To find out more, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor for support.

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