ISSUES OF FAITH: Stuck in survival mode

“Survival mode is supposed to be a phase that helps save your life. It is not meant to be how you live.”

~Michele Rosenthal

Do you find yourself struggling just to get through the day? Is it hard to get motivated, to think straight or to relax? Are you perhaps more grumpy, angry, weepy or sleepy than you used to be?

If so, you are not alone. I know I am not the only one who is getting the sense that we — as individuals, as a community and as a nation — are showing signs of being stuck in survival mode.

Under normal circumstances, survival mode is a short-term, fear-based mode of thinking we enter when our “fight, flight or freeze” response is triggered. It’s an evolutionary, life-saving response that has saved many a human over the eons. As such, it serves us well.

But when we spend too much time in survival mode, it can have a caustic effect on us. Chronic worry and stress lead us to be less forgiving, communicative and productive, and more rigid, aggressive or reclusive.

When we stop to think about it, I think we can all agree that the past two years have been exceptionally difficult ones.

Together, we have been weathering the ups and downs of COVID infection rates, politics, the economy and climate chaos. Many of us have concluded that our country, our species and/or our planet are “doomed.”

Individually, many of us have the additional stresses of lost loved ones, complicated health issues, loneliness from COVID restrictions and far too much time at home.

These combined factors are having a negative impact on the quality of our sleep, our optimism, our resilience and our happiness.

Biologically speaking, our bodies are designed to tackle threats and then move back into a relaxed mode. However, when our minds are unable to process, regulate or tolerate ongoing threats, it goes into an “always on guard” mode to protect us.

Sadly, this form of protection turns into our own enemy when we can’t turn off the alarm bells, and we end up living with anxiety.

So, what are we to do to get out of Survival Mode?

We begin by facing the multitude of these challenges head-on. Denial gets us nowhere.

Instead, try these practices, recommended by Life Coach Chaitali Gursahani:

1. Remind yourself that you can handle whatever happens.

When we’re in survival mode, we create unhelpful stories in our heads and forecast the worst possible outcomes as means to keep ourselves safe. The key to releasing our fear-based need to protect ourselves is accepting that we can’t control everything. No amount of worrying can ensure that nothing hurts us.

All we can do is address what’s within our power and then consciously choose empowering thoughts. Remind yourselves that even if things don’t work out as you planned, you have the power and resiliency to handle it.

2. Rewire your brain through awareness.

Regularly ask yourself if your thoughts are creating your emotions or your emotions are creating your thoughts. You’ll be amazed to realize that our mind creates statements that cause us to feel a certain way.

For example, if a friend doesn’t respond back to a text or call, you might make up stories about how maybe you said something to upset them or that something is wrong with them and that elicits emotions in you accordingly. If you think they’re just busy, you’ll feel differently. So, practice becoming aware of your stories so you don’t go into panic mode over thoughts that likely aren’t facts.

3. Pay attention to your body.

Your body speaks in subtle ways. Always check in with it to know how you are really feeling. Is there tension somewhere? Is your heart beating faster? Is your jaw tight?

When you’re curious about your physical sensations, you’ll start to recognize when you’re emotionally charged from reacting to a perceived threat. This enables you to proactively calm your nervous system — perhaps through deep breathing, petting your dog or getting out in nature.

4. Be compassionate toward yourself and others.

These are strange times indeed, and we are all in unfamiliar territory. Please be compassionate toward yourself and others.

We will get through this if we stick together.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Kate Lore is a minister at the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. Her email is [email protected]

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