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?
Survival 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?
Survival 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?
For 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.
How’s your stress level lately?