Stuck in survival mode: When worry takes over your life

For when you can’t stop feeling worried or obsessed with what is threatening your stability in life – a stress response based on past traumas or recent ones, for that matter. If you prefer to listen, here’s the Podcast version of this post.

This one is for Heather! I heart you girl – hope this helps the teensiest bit.

In this blog, ‘survival mode’ is the term we are giving a pervasive sense of fear and stress and anxiety over issues that are not a real threat, though they are experienced on daily basis in the form of vivid mental hypotheticals. Survival mode is an overactive stress response that drives people to obsessively think about painful things: things past, things to come, endlessly analyzing and solving for “what if?”. In other words – the worst version of brain overdrive you can imagine, all the time. It’s anxiety so powerful that it takes over your life.

This state can come in varying degrees – from an intolerable sense of panic to manageable-but-overwhelming worry. Regardless, it’s always something that keeps you outside of your life – unable to truly engage and enjoy it as you see others do. Living in survival mode, you want to run but you don’t know where. Nothing feels “safe” except checking out of your body – so most in survival mode end up drowning themselves in busyness or the lives and problems of other people. This is never healthy or sustainable for many reasons – the most dangerous of which being the lack of connection to self, and with that, a lack of self-care. In short, this is a powerful issue that causes many people a whole lot of pain.

The more long-term the trauma happened to be, the more this behavior loop will be engrained into your mental muscle memory. That said – this blog is for everyone, no matter how bad your trauma. You can absolutely help yourself, soothe yourself and move through this issue steadily but surely.

Before I go on I would like to say that the Headspace contest is still going on and if you suffer from this – you would benefit IMMENSELY from the app. It’s got daily meditation exercises – which are perfect for this type of ailment.

Without further ado – there are three parts: the what, the why, and then the how aka the tools. Let’s do this!


Survival Mode is a like a cousin of PTSD in that it results from trauma –likely long-term trauma or sometimes traumas that happened consistently for a short amount of time. It can also be from traumas that happened in a pattern so they created a sense of a new confirmed reality in your person. In other words, traumatic experience/s that changed the way you defined your world.

What do I mean by trauma? They’re experiences that evoked terror, extreme stress or an overwhelming panic that caused your adrenaline to spike far past what it might during a really exciting action film. They’re usually fear-inducing situations that don’t match the average of your life experiences in their level of severity. What’s most relevant is these experiences reset your “normal” because your brain can’t make them make sense with the rest of life – so it raises the range of expected events to include terror and evil and “run for your life!” Your brain will hunt for other comparable information so that you can put this in some order – so if you’ve been through a trauma, you might find yourself putting yourself in more dangerous situations. That’s a way that you can feel “in control” of the intense fear you feel – a way to create “normal” between all your emotions, that accounts for the vast extremes. When you go through a trauma, your brain wants to rearrange everything else to feel comfortable with these truths – because otherwise it’s intolerable. It cannot predict or protect you if you cannot make sense of the logic behind something. You cannot anticipate it – or align it with anything else.

If your traumas happened when you were young, it’s likely more powerful because a child has very powerful and overwhelming emotions with an added sense of vulnerability. As a child, you are desperate to feel safe – and you must rely on others to feel that way: you have no power. So when safety is taken away it’s often much too painful to tolerate. Adults can take care of themselves whereas a child needs life, care and protection. The fear a child feels is based on a threat to their survival.

With both childhood trauma and adult trauma, your brain and body takes on the role of trying to keep you safe. Preempting and foreseeing future situations that do not exist and are not likely, despite that they feel they are. The downside is there is no real danger – you just can’t tell that. So you treat everything as if the danger lives all around you all the time. It’s all consuming: planning for your particular danger to come and trying to desperately buffer for the pain it will cause.

That is such an overwhelming emotional process – but it’s what is most important about it all: it’s a blip in your wiring, and you’re seeing it everywhere – but it’s now – created by you. It’s not a real condition of your life. You feel it as painful and scary, but if you traded lives with someone else – they would not see the danger you see. Your lens – your damage – distorts your experience.

As an experiment, picture a blonde woman with big fake boobs, bright red lipstick, a really short miniskirt, and lots of surgery. I see someone who feels they are not enough inside. I see insecurity, a lack of confidence and self-love. Someone else might see someone snobby and self-important who is full of themselves. My lens of experience informs the information I focus on. Just like you. So if you have had a lot of one kind of bad experience, as an adult you will see all that danger around you – when someone else doesn’t see it at all. If you’re not sure if you have past trauma that’s currently affecting you, here’s a list of symptoms from The Mayo Clinic.

“There are four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, or changes in emotional reactions.

  • Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:
  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
  • Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the event
  • Symptoms of avoidance may include:
  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
  • Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
  • Negative feelings about yourself or other people
  • Inability to experience positive emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Symptoms of changes in emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:
  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
  • Always being on guard for danger
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Being easily startled or frightened”

So if you have been through some shit, there’s a chance you suffer from this condition in your personal life. You’re likely very high functioning – meaning – able to take care of and manage a lot of really tough stuff, currently – emotionally and mentally, and you also likely discount that in yourself and feel your particular shit is “Not that bad.”

How to tell if you’re in Survival Mode right now?

You might feel overwhelming anxiety and fear about life in general. Or, you never have a sense of feeling safe and secure. You likely don’t trust people or expect them to disappoint you. And because of your constant worry, you likely only feel okay when you are helping someone else or working your butt off. In other words, you need to be mentally outside of your body and immersed in something else. You likely focus on the problems that you can’t seem to drop in your life. Things that are wrong with you, with your situation, your career, your finances, your lack of fill-in-the-blank.

  • Regardless of having real problems, what is most important is the imaginings of negative outcomes and obsessively seeking solutions is all pointless. There are no real solutions to imagined problems, therefore, your mind goes into endless “what-ifs” and there’s no “solve” because it’s just another hypothetical. Therefore, nothing quenches this void, nothing you think of actually fixes it. There’s nothing you can think of that will make this overwhelming feeling stop.

So if you’re reading this, you are likely aware you are tortured and unhappy because of this anxiety, and you want to be normal. You want to believe in trust. You want to believe in happiness being possible for you in the future. You want to find someone who knows your issues and has lived through them – who can offer you real solutions. Whether or not you believe that person exists, they absolutely do – your situation is not unsolvable, your issues are not incurable. You can and will be happy – what is most important is you decide that you want that for yourself and go for it. And don’t stop. You will get there – and absolutely be exactly who you want. But you must go all-in with your self-help and be aggressive about your healing and soothing practices. You probably can’t believe that from where you are now – and I don’t blame you! I wouldn’t either. So walk with me and your life’s pattern will change. You don’t have to believe me because you will see this for yourself – eventually.

This is a more personal sort of blog topic for me in that I can relate to you. That’s why I have confidence in your ability to heal yourself. Your personal, custom, just-right solution DOES exist, but because your condition has been very deeply imprinted into your fibers, you must attack this aggressively and commit to healing no matter what it takes. Your solution – just like everyone’s – will be specific to you. You will learn it based on practice and trying out everything and anything and all at once. You’ve got to try on what fits til you pick out the right tools. Yes, sometimes it takes a bit of hunting but I want to say regardless of who you are and what you have lived through, I believe yes, you can and will heal. Yes, you will love again. Yes, you will trust again, and yes, you will one day be happy. Period. You have to choose that outcome and commit to it – and then you have to work toward it relentlessly. But once you say yes to that, it’s totally going to be yours.

If you’re saying, “But my pain is different – it’s way worse,” my answer is – I believe you. But when it comes to healing, it’s not different. Terror is terror. Children are children. The brain is the brain. The body does what the body does. I believe no matter how gnarly or pervasive your damage, you can heal from it. There’s only one kind of person that I don’t think can heal – and if you’re reading this now in search of help, you are not a part of that group. Why? Because if you were an incurable type of person, you would never be seeking a cure in the first place. If you were so f–ked up that you were in an unreachable place, this awareness of what you could have but don’t have, would escape you and reading this from someone like me would be exhausting and trivial – like a waste of time. You wouldn’t even look voluntarily toward this topic. It wouldn’t be on your radar. Because you literally couldn’t see this problem in the first place, therefore you would not care to listen to anyone talk about it – it’d be “not your life.” Instead, you might be furthering what plagues you by hurting others, using drugs, or drowning your pain in a chemical relationship. In other words, you’d be en route to becoming a sociopath – so you could live in another dimension of reality where suffering has no value. My point is, you’re healthier than you think. Pain is good. It’s a sign that the nerves are alive and well and your emotional heart is healthy and beating. “Ha! Thanks.” Right? Right.

Part 2: Why?

You have an over-active stress response. This is your real problem. It’s run away with your brain and body!

This reaction – a state of panic – is causing you to bypass the stage where you reflect and create based on all the resources you have in your life. Instead of inviting the A-team to the table to strategize, you’re jumping straight into a reaction. “Find the solution! Do the solution!” The worst part of that is your solution is usually false/not based on wisdom. You jump to places before stopping to look at all your options. It’s like running around on fire. You cannot access the moment when you are trapped in nonstop thoughts.

Another unfortunate side affect of this survival mode is your thinking is all about self-preservation. Everything is a threat to you, which must be solved by you, and therefore you likely isolate and feed the loop. Which means you can’t see many of the avenues that come from opening to others outside of you.

Your brain chatter prevents you from experiencing the truth of right now – because you’re listening to a broken record of irrational fears. So to soothe this nonstop loop of fear, you likely numb yourself with stress – constantly occupying your focus with whatever is immersive. For example, work – or someone else’s problems. Stress and drama act as drugs for soothing past trauma because they keep you “making sense” of what’s wrong. Suddenly the terror feelings have a valid source.

What I want you to focus on:

  • The nonstop stress habit NEVER creates a solution. You are never happier, healthier or more calm – in fact you make it worse in many ways because with stress you erode your health and wellbeing. Not to mention, you never “solve” the perceived threat. It only seems to expand. That’s because the process is not reflective. It’s like a distorted lens of past experience. You force information through it to calculate an answer. But the answer is not based on your whole person – only this warped filter.
  • When you’re in survival mode clarity, focus, and purpose go out the window.
  • Your ability to see solutions and act on them is on lockdown. You get stuck in inaction.
  • When you get stuck in your mind – your problems are all imagined. They are not in reality. Therefore you cannot solve them. They don’t exist. It’s like a really fucked up play full of crazy people running around and screaming for the lead role.

Part 3: How to change – The tools!

Step 1: Please write this down – I need you to not forget this. This is a bar I want you to set for any progress you make past this point. You will not be fooled by worry. You will step back and see it as a part of your residual trauma. The fears you have over your life are not real. Your life-pattern tells you otherwise, but that’s because you haven’t experienced your life without this damage. YET. Most of what you live out NOW in the form of your problems – all the negative conditions you perceive – are created by you. I’, not blaming you – not at all. It’s just your lens. Your focus is creating the condition. Your first and most important step is recognizing that. That’s a biggy. Once you know that, you can find solutions. If you don’t believe that to be true in YOUR case, just stay open to believing me as you continue to read this. Go through this process anyway. It’s really all about becoming more objective. Trust in that part being true.

A focus on lack or the negative is actually what causes it to show up around us even more, therefore your top priorities are retraining your focus away from those things while soothing the triggered state you experience because of them. In short, empower yourself. Empower yourself. Empower yourself! Do not allow yourself to validate the fears and panic. Like, don’t honor them with real weight in your mind. I know that sounds impossible and illogical from where you are now, but from the outside of your chemical rollercoaster, it’s quite logical. Your fear and anxiety is not. It doesn’t exist in reality. Your trauma tells you otherwise – but what you can’t see is that is the exception to the rule vs the average, in your lifetime. Right now, objectivity is your best friend. So the tools are based in becoming more logical so that you can talk yourself down from the triggered states.

One more resource – if you have it in your neighborhood, go to 12 step meetings or Alanon meetings or any help group based in your particular trauma. You might not have a history with some of these topics, but regardless, a group of people looking for strength is such a profound relief to have – it’s incredibly profound: strangers who understand your pain better than anyone you know – and because of that, they love you and can support you.

Without further ado… the tools.

TOOL 1: Soothe the Triggered states: Breathing exercises

These are to enact in the super triggered states. These are used by monks and the military. You won’t believe in them til you witness them work – then they are a godsend. So do them until they work – and don’t stop.

  1. Bead breathing

Grab a chunky beaded loop or even a loop of chain. For every full breath in and out, push one of the beads through the grasp of your fingers.

Do this for one full round of the bracelet until you return to the first bead, and check how long it has been. If it’s been about 4 minutes then you’ve found a good bracelet. If it’s been less, then try going around it twice. Remember to make your breath and smooth and steady as possible – listen to it.

  1. Gimme-five breathing

Take one breath in for the count of five.

Hold it for the count of five.

Breath out for the count of five.

Hold it for the count of five.

In addition to plain old breathing exercises, YOGA is also going to become your best friend. You MUST get into a form of emotional soothing like meditation – this is so important. Make time for it and don’t dismiss it. Don’t make excuses. You choose where to place your time and energy. No matter what your schedule, make time for yourself to take care of yourself. This is an extremely important one.

TOOL 2: Ninja Actions!

Smallest, quickest actions. As a rule, focus on simple, quick and easy issues with simple solutions – anything that needs attention – and complete these tasks immediately. Focus on the smallest solution within your reach, and do it. Don’t worry about the big things – stick to small and actionable. Do as many of these as often as possible. Almost close your eyes and throw yourself into action on them. Stay out of mental solutions – stay in physical ones.

TOOL 3: Mantra: Don’t believe the roots!

Imagine a very old garden and these giant carrots are growing out of the earth and their roots are all dark and rotten and scary. The tops are all nice and green.

You are likely not going to fully trust the validity of hope because of what you have lived. I didn’t either. But the short of it is do not trust the roots of your problems. They show up and tell you “Worry about me. Fear me. Replay me over and over – plan extensively for me.” But they are all dirty rotten liars.

When you start to hear those dirty whispering doubts – remember – the roots are rotten. Tell yourself “Let it go. Let it go.” Have faith. Keep going. Victory and relief will be yours but you must be strong and keep going.

Tool 4: Prove the Positive.

Or, Spot the joy. This one’s more of a hobby or a game for you to play during your day. Ratio-wise, just look for the majority of your experiences – which are actually positive. You likely don’t see that now – so your job is to count happy things. Little tiny happy things. Like how many butterflies you see tomorrow. Or gestures of kindness. Or gestures of selflessness. Whatever you’re going to look for – choose to mentally notate all things positive. Write them down in your memory and recount them at the end of your day. Do this exercise each day. It’s fun. Trust me. ?

In closing…

Focus on empowering actions. Focus on soothing the symptoms. Never trust the roots!! Do not honor the negative thought spirals. Your eyes need to focus on empowering actions and not the obsession over what you don’t have. Which, I know is the hard part -but it won’t be forever. Having been worry-obsessed myself, I very much believe you will heal.  Much like the addiction to stress, you have an addiction to worry – but with conscious and deliberate retraining, all will be healed, one day. Your muscle memory will reset. Your life’s pattern will prove something different to you – that life is good.

Having experienced trauma, the biggest goal you likely have is to just be okay. To not suffer so much. To feel safe and at peace. I get that and I know how that feels. You will have that part. But right now, you’ve got to push yourself to get out of the self-protective fetal position and aggressively help yourself. Push yourself to reach out and research ugly topics and try out new groups and books and methods. Find the help that works for you. If you find a sh-tty therapist, tell them you’re not coming back and go to a new one. Push yourself to get good help and go all in on that help. Spend money on it. Find role models who have been through what you have and listen to them. Because I know when trauma is great, this part of your healing takes running with all your heart. It takes commitment of time and energy and focus from you. Because you want this that bad. And trust me – it’s worth it – like nothing else in your whole life is worth it. It’s worth everything. All your energy. All your money. All your time. Know that and act like it. Don’t half-ass your healing.

Okay, tough love Sarah out.

I believe in you. I will be mentally cheering you on from the sidelines via blog-post. I send you my love, and wish you much strength. Don’t forget to smile…

Happy Sunday lovelies! xo

 Featured image via Flickr

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