5 Ways to Survive Survival Mode

“I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” ~ Samuel Beckett

Looking around, one cannot help but feel an ominous disquiet and nervousness slithering throughout our culture, both locally and globally. It’s not just the pandemic. It’s not just the daily grind. It’s not just financial instability. There’s a feeling of quiet despair, like we’re slowly drowning. There’s a sense of urgency, like our back is up against the wall. There’s an underlying anxiety and the sense of having lost something vital. 

This feeling causes the fight or flight response to kick in, which paints the world in black and white and coats everything in a glass-is-half-empty light. The fight-or-flight response can be triggered by both real and imaginary threats. But it can also help us perform better in situations where we are under pressure to do well.

Problems arise when this response becomes constant and forces us into survival mode. When we’re stuck in survival mode, we feel like we’ll never dig ourselves out of the hole. We’re living just to get through the day and trying our hardest not to have a terrible day. It feels as though having a good day isn’t even an option any more. 

Sometimes it feels less like running around like a chicken with its head cut off and more like flopping around like a rabbit with one leg chopped off. This feeling is not sustainable. 

Survival mode strikes us all. The question is what can we do about it? How do we navigate this emotional slipknot? What do we do with this vital information? How do we rediscover our balance, our mojo? How do we get back to a place where having a good day is at least an option?

1.) Admit you’re in survival mode: 

“A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction; it is a very real—albeit very inarticulate—bid for health and self-knowledge.” ~ Alain de Botton

Ignorance is not bliss when you’re in survival mode. The first step in surviving survival mode is to admit that it’s happening. Don’t be wilfully ignorant. Acknowledge it. Understand that it is not sustainable. Things cannot remain this way, or you’ll burn yourself out. 

Most people don’t like to admit that they are in survival mode because they imagine they are being negative if they do so. But, as the Law of Reversed Effort shows, by accepting a negative experience we indirectly create a positive experience.

The only way to survive survival mode is to accept it. The more you resist it, or attempt to ignore it, the more it will tighten its grip. Embrace the negative and the negative lets go. Now you are free to dig yourself out of your hole. 

2.) Lighten your load:

“No amount of security is worth the suffering of a mediocre life chained to a routine that has killed your dreams.” ~ Maya Mendoza

Getting out of survival mode is getting out of your own way. Getting out of your own way is pinpointing what aspects of your life are really obstacles that can be removed for smoother sailing. 

If things are piling up and you feel overwhelmed, then it’s time to attack the pile. It’s time to pare down, to focus on essentials. What isn’t essential must go.

There’s no room for vacillation. Your sanity depends upon it. You must be ruthless in separating the wheat from the chaff—outward. Just as you must be merciless in burning away your psychological dross—inward. Get out from under the weight of your heavy heartedness and embrace the transcendence behind light-heartedness. 

Organize, prioritize, then rise. Rise into a lighter version of yourself who is more able to adapt and overcome.

3.) Lower your expectations: 

“True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.” ~ Tom Robbins

Stability and wholeness are two sides of the same coin. Stability comes from balancing opposites. Wholeness comes from integrating opposites. 

When your presumed order becomes disoriented and your presumed disorder becomes the norm, the only way to get ahead of it is to question your presumptions. Questioning your presumptions keeps you ahead of the curve, where you are prepared to be transformed by the balance of order and disorder rather than burnt out or destroyed by it.

Stability and wholeness are achieved when you realize that your survival mode and your thrive mode can coexist. It’s not an either-or, but both – and dynamic. You can be both stressed out and productive. You can be both fallible and creative. 

Lower your expectations. Take it easy on yourself. So you missed a deadline. So what? You tried your best. Stop taking things so seriously, especially yourself. Loosen your grip. Relax a bit. Work hard but play harder. Have a laugh at yourself. A good sense of humor will get you through just about anything.

4.) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable:

“Chaos, leave me never. Keep me wild and keep me free so that my brokenness will be the only beauty the world will see.” ~ R. M. Drake

Survival mode kicks in when you are overwhelmed by the world. But who says you can’t kick back? Who says you can’t take that overwhelming energy and transform it into your own energy that flips the script and overwhelms the world instead?

Harness the chaos. As Anais Nin said, “In chaos there is fertility.” There is more wisdom in an inch of cutting chaos than in a mile of gentle order. As long as the cut doesn’t kill you, there is potential for greatness hiding in that pain. There is chaos there, sure, but it’s the kind of chaos that sculpts a heart into wholeheartedness. That unleashes a mind into open-mindedness. That hones a soul into a thing sharp enough to cut God.

Your suffering is sufferable. What’s insufferable is your need for perfection and comfort. But you will always be imperfect and uncomfortable. There will always be struggle. There will always be heartache. We wreck ourselves against these. Then we knock out the dents, we mend the cracks, and we heal the wounds. And then we come out the other side with a vitality that rivals all the vicissitudes of life.

Get comfortable with the chaos. Get comfortable with the pain. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Because that’s the whetstone honing you into something capable of transforming dullness into sharpness. 

5.) Practice proactive detachment:

“Impermanence is more than an idea. It is a practice to help us touch reality.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Surrender. Let go of your need for things to turn out a certain way. Be proactive about digging yourself out of the hole, but don’t fret if it takes longer than expected. It might even get worse before it gets better. Remember the journey is the thing even while surviving survival mode. 

Since there is no quick fix for getting out of survival mode, you’ll have to give yourself time to wind down from time to time. Meditate on creating healthier habits. Practice discipline, resilience, and reinvention. Then let it all go with a sense of healthy detachment. 

Realize that nothing lasts forever, even survival mode. This too shall pass. Until it does, treat it like an experiment. Transform survival mode into game mode. Rise above it in your detached state and have a sense of humor about how things play out. Try to be playful, lighthearted, and open to transformation. See the big picture of your life in contrast with the small picture of your survival mode, then begin connecting the dots between merely surviving and vitally thriving.

As Ebonee Davis said, “The habits you created to survive will no longer serve you when it’s time to thrive. Get out of survival mode. New habits, new life.”

Image Source:

Survival Mode Drawing by Camille Bonterre

Please share, it really helps! :) <3

Gary Z McGee
Gary Z McGee
Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.

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