Amanda Cade

Worth It! (Things to try, read, watch, hear, and discuss)

In the past month, my coworkers, several of my friends, a few family members, and yours truly have all been echoing variations of the same refrain: “I just need to get past X”. You know what I mean…”let me survive this meeting/project/day/week/month/whatever and then things will even out. Once X is over, I’ll be back in balance and everything will be looking up”. Unfortunately, X is usually followed by Y and Z.

In other words, we’ve all been in survival mode, and chances are many of you can relate. So let’s talk about it.

What is it?

scaredSurvival Mode is what happens when you are undergoing a prolonged stress response. Stress response is how our body processes dangers, by activating the “fight or flight” reflex (more on that here). Basically, when our brain perceives a threat, it triggers our bodies to release hormones and give us a burst of extra energy. It developed to help us survive the immediate physical dangers that our ancestors faced routinely, like volcanoes, tigers, and aggression from others. The stress response happens faster than we can consciously process information, and it’s why we can, in times of immediate danger, move before we’re aware of what we’re doing, and be stronger, faster, etc. when we really need to be. 

Unfortunately, while our automatic processes are great at reacting to danger, they aren’t great at parsing that danger. Our brains and bodies produce the same response whether the threat is a dangerous animal or a looming deadline. That’s why being nervous and uncomfortable often makes us feel sick, since our bodies are prepping for intense physical action that isn’t actually coming.

The stress response is not designed for the prolonged stresses of the modern world, such as workload, bad bosses, and financial difficulties. In these situations, your body is running in sprinting mode, but you’re mentally trying to run a marathon. However, the fast pace and increasing demands on our attention can create a situation where we are constantly flipping into stress response, and only focusing on making it through the current crisis so we can race ahead to the next one.

How does it affect us?

too muchSurvival mode typically leads to feeling overwhelmed and an inability to enjoy, or sometimes even accomplish, everyday activities. What’s worse is that the effects of survival mode often directly work against our ability to break out of it. As Edward Hallowell wrote in an article for The Harvard Business Review, “As long as our frontal lobes remain in charge, everything is fine…But when you are confronted with the sixth decision after the fifth interruption in the midst of a search for the ninth missing piece of information on the day that the third deal has collapsed and the 12th impossible request has blipped unbidden across your computer screen, your brain begins to panic, reacting just as if that sixth decision were a bloodthirsty, man-eating tiger.”

Hallowell argues that this can cause a state that interferes with executive function, the mental processes responsible for planning and decision making related tasks. He calls it “Attention Deficit Trait”, a psychological condition where long term stress can cause  problems similar to the neurological condition of Attention Deficit Disorder. This difficulty in concentrating usually causes an additional increase in stress, as the challenges continue to outpace our ability to handle them.

Physical symptoms include headaches, difficulty sleeping, and digestive issues. Long term survival mode can lead to heart problems, obesity, high blood pressure, and a compromised immune system (more on that here).

How do you recognize it?

super stressedFor starters, be aware that it’s going to creep up on you. One big, terrible thing happening causes a trauma response, which is a whole different animal. Survival mode is a risk when little things are triggering that fight or flight reflex over and over again. You need to take time to assess where you are and how you’re feeling. If your days tend to be filled with repeated pressure and emotional spikes, that’s a warning sign. If you’re familiar with the symptoms I talked about above, that’s another. And if the “just let me get through this, and then this, and then this” attitude I talked about at the start of the post sounds familiar, you should definitely reflect on your situation.

The good news is, you can manage survival mode. It’s done short term by handling the initial stress response, and long term by dealing with underlying issues. Next week, we’re going to look at how to do that.

hang in there

How’s your stress level lately?

31 thoughts on “Worth Discussing: Survival Mode

  1. OMG this was a great blog that is so true!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      It’s such a dangerous place to be, and often really hard to recognize.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Travelling Through Wonderland says:

    This is so helpful

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I think it can creep up on you so that sometimes you don’t realise just how stressed or overwhelmed you are. Once, when I left a job that was making me miserable, I didn’t realised how bad things were until I came out the other side. I knew I had to change it, and I did, but I think when all your effort is going on getting through the next thing, you don’t see how that very process is taking all of your energy and brain power.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      That’s so true. Things move so fast that it’s hard to see the big picture.

      Like

  4. Ladysag77 says:

    Great explanations my friend! It’s incredibly important to listen to our bodies and become aware of what we are feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      Especially since “suck it up and push through” has become such a pervasive attitude.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This post is super important. I have been living this way and it’s good to finally have a name to it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      It’s very common, and yet we frequently overlook it.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Judy Kim says:

    This is a great post! I’ve been in survival mode at work for over a year. Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      A year is a long time to be going through that. I hope you’re able to break out of it soon.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Judy Kim says:

        Thank you, Amanda. I hope so too, I think I should stop trying to cope and transfer to a different position.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. The Eclectic Contrarian says:

    Been there and I feel for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      I’m approaching this week with the goal getting things back in balance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Eclectic Contrarian says:

        Awesome!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. masercot says:

    Another version of this is “Everything would be great if only I lived in [insert city name here]”

    But, soon we find that wherever we are, we are still making the same mistakes…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Carol Anne says:

    Lately my stress levels have soared. My anxiety is through the roof. I hate anxiety. I have definitely been in survival mode a lot lately. Xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      Anxiety makes everything so much more difficult, as it erodes confidence in our ability to weather the situation…leading to even more anxiety.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Carol Anne says:

        Too true it surely does 😙💟

        Liked by 1 person

  10. stuartaken says:

    Great piece, Amanda. I suffered 10 years of ME/CFS, which ended almost as soon as I gave up employment (I was old enough to retire!). But your piece here identifies the triggers that were probably most responsible for the stress that caused the condition. Something else for your readers to watch out for. ME/CFS is a difficult condition to live with and can last all your life, so best avoided.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      I’ve read about the condition, including that stress is one of the causes. I’m glad you improved once you retired, but sad to hear that’s what it took. No one’s job should make them sick.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. stuartaken says:

        True enough. Ironically, a major cause of my own stress was created by a fellow worker whose anxiety condition caused her to literally never stop talking; not an easy situation when most of your work is of a technical nature and delivered over the phone. Having her constant chatter in the other ear was not exactly easy! But I’d reached retirement age at 65 and left the situation; within weeks I was back to normality. So much so, a year later I was able to take part in a half marathon to raise funds for a charity that had helped me cope with the situation.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. What a great post! So true.
    I started a new blog, about activities, songs, and crafts for kids, go check it out when you can, thanks!
    https://christythepreschoolteacher.home.blog/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      Thanks, and I will!

      Like

  12. I love the Edward Hallowell quote! How true. Thanks for posting on this important issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      Hallowell really summed it up perfectly.

      Liked by 1 person

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