How to Recognise Survival Mode

Are You In Survival Mode?

I’m not sure where the term ‘survival mode’ comes from but it is a phrase that seems to resonate for a lot of people I speak to in my work as a therapist.

Have you ever had that feeling that you are just treading water and that if you stop kicking you could sink at any moment?

Ever feel that it would only take a fairly small wave to swallow you up altogether?

Then survival mode will probably resonate for you too.

This analogy seemed particularly pertinent a while ago when I was listening to the radio and the Royal National Life Guard were talking about a campaign giving some survival advice if you get into trouble in the water.

They were advising that rather than thrashing about, people should float, conserve their energy and gather themselves in order to enable them to swim or until help arrives.

You can find more about the RNLI Fight or Float advice here:

However, this is also a brilliant analogy for our emotional state and the psychological concept of survival mode too.

All too often, the thing that we automatically do when we are in survival mode is to try harder, push ourselves, do more, work longer hours or use the same old strategies that may have worked for us once but are not working any more.

In essence, we are thrashing about in the water.


What is survival mode?

First, I should probably explain a little more about what I mean when I am talking about survival mode.

For the most part, I think survival mode looks a lot like functioning and can even feel functional too but survival mode will leave you:

  • Exhausted
  • Stressed out
  • Overwhelmed
  • Snappy
  • Restless
  • Unable to concentrate for long
  • Forgetful
  • Making more mistakes…

…but it feels like you are doing something nonetheless.


From personal experience…

Survival mode looked like never stopping for air –

Rushing to work, not taking breaks, rushing from work to collect the kids, then cramming in as many activities for them as I could before getting them to bed, doing as much housework as I could fit in once they were settled then collapsing into bed (probably being woken up 3-4 times) then starting the whole thing all over again.

time pressure

One of the problems with this approach is that it can work to some extent, giving us little reason to change until it becomes unsustainable.

I could still be a good therapist, a good mum and have a reasonably tidy house when I was operating in survival mode but it was difficult to enjoy it. Instead, it felt like being on a treadmill. Working hard but getting nowhere.

I wasn’t enjoying it, I was just surviving it.

There is no balance when you are in survival mode.


Recognising survival mode thoughts

Survival mode can be so busy it is difficult to recognise it when you are in the middle of it. Here are some of the thoughts you may notice in survival mode:

  • I just don’t have the time
  • I ‘should’ be doing…
  • I can’t cope with anything else
  • It is just one thing after another
  • There’s too much to do
  • I never stop
  • My head is too full


How to break free?

If this sounds like a place you are in right now, then you are faced with the problem of how to change it.

Maybe you try to take on something new to try to get your balance back?

Do the things you believe that you ‘should’ do rather than the things you truly want to do?

Try to cram in even more to re-gain a social life or exercise routine?

You might try a different angle and look for ways to escape by…

  • looking for a new job
  • putting things off (usually the hardest or the most important things)
  • turning down opportunities to see friends because you are just too tired
  • collapsing in front of Netflix and zoning out with a bottle of wine and a big bag of crisps.

All the while neglecting to do the things that help you to float.


What we really benefit from when we are in survival mode is to pause.

Float, breathe, gather your energy and resources.

Connect with your emotions and find time for relaxation. Then maybe it will be easier to swim in the direction you want to go when you have recovered.

Looking after your wellbeing doesn’t feel like a priority when you are in survival mode.

You believe that if you stop, you will sink.

Maybe there is an alternative – maybe you could float.

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy!

Image Credit: Pixabay

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I am a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and EMDR therapist, mum of 2 awesome children and founder of Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing! I offer wellbeing workshops and guided relaxation sessions to workplaces in Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees.

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