How to Recognize Survival Mode and Get Out of It

I’m sure you’ve heard of the expression “I’m in survival mode” a few times in your life. Maybe you’ve even used it to describe yourself. When you feel like you’re just existing and constantly dealing with stress or hardship, you’re probably in survival mode.

Survival mode implies a feeling of lack rather than abundance. People living in survival mode will often react to things rather than be proactive about them. This isn’t necessarily conscious, it’s just that frequent challenges and stressful situations can bring you to the point of exhaustion. You may feel like you have very little energy left at the end of the day and are unable to invest in yourself or in improving your circumstances.

Survival moders often spend time complaining and blaming rather than taking responsibility for their lives. That is not to say that you’re necessarily to blame when things go wrong. The question is, how do you normally react in the face of adversity? This will determine how well you’re able to bounce back or move on after an event.

The other issue survival moders face is the constant feeling of failure, fear, or dread. One of the ways you can shift away from survival mode is to start seeing small failures as growth opportunities rather than negative experiences. In other words, it’s all about mindset and perspective. Survival mode may seem like a necessary coping mechanism, but it may actually be causing you harm. Constantly living in a fear-based mentality can make you feel stressed out and exhausted.

It can also lead to you comparing yourself to others and thinking that you’re not good enough or not capable of dealing with every day life.

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Some experts beleive it may even change your personality and relationships over time. Survival mode also disconnects you from others, making you less aware of what’s going on around you and what others may be going through. You may unintentionally end up neglecting your friends, family, or partner because you’re hyper-focused on yourself.

According to Dr. Adeola Oke, the way our bodies react to internal and external stimuli is called the stress response. He adds that “while this mechanism helps keep up alive and safe, it can also be exaggerated and unwarranted, which causes health problems down the road.”

In fact, our heart, muscles, joints, stomac, endocrine system, and lungs can all experience negative long term effects when we live in constant stress mode. Things like headaches, migraines, joint pain, inflammation, heart attack and stroke, diabetes, thyroid issues, acid reflux, and lower oxygen in the blood are often signs of chronic stress pose serious risks to us.

Survival mode can also lead to mental and emotional problems such as anxiety, irritability, depression, sleep and memory problems. So, what is the alternative? Living in thrive mode can transform the way you think about and deal with life’s problems.

Psychologist Martin Seligman defines thrive mode as experiencing:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement and flow
  • Positive Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

To thrive in your life means feeling like you’re prospering, successful, and growing on a personal or professional level. The point is not to normalize difficult and stressful experiences and begin to think of them as every day occurences. I rember something my mother used to tell me growing up. She would say “Life is hard right?” I knew deep down that if I believed that I would be giving up on the idea that it doesn’t need to be.

Life’s challenges are never permanent and it’s important to give ourselves permission to have bad days. Learning coping strategies such as stress management, mindfulness, and self-care are key to thriving rather than surviving.

Try some of these strategies the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or like giving up:

  • Daily meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Taking a moment to pause your day
  • Finding the humour in situations
  • Having gratitude for the small things
  • Recognizing what went well and what you learned
  • Giving yourself props for your strengths and skills
  • Having compassion for yourself and others

Dr Joe Dispenza suggests that stress can eventually shut down the immune system and affect our body’s ability to heal. When we experience financial and personal stress on a regular basis, we can get so used to living without thriving that it becomes our natural state.

In reality, thriving mode allows us to be more creative with our problem-solving and more productive overall. Reducing stress is possible if you detach yourself from the outcome and the need to control. While this is easier said than done, there are strategies for doing this. The most effective is using mindfulness and meditation.

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Meditation allows you to be full present in the moment and let go of your anxiety or fear about what may or may not happen in your future. When you’re feeling out of balance, your body triggers the stress response to meet that need. However, when the danger is gone, some of us continue to live as though we were still trying to survive. If you never get rest, you don’t have the chance to repair the body’s response reaction and rebalance yourself.

Unconsciously when we become used to this state we seek out the tough jobs, the challenging relationships, to maintain that level of energy despite not being happy with our lives.  “Your thoughts can make you sick” Dispenza says.

In addition to having a regular meditation practice, Dr Dispenza recommends four things to find balance again:

  1. Think of positive feelings like gratitude, kindness, joy, and love for 10 minutes a day.
  2. Focus your attention and your energy away from matter and towards learning, creating, and going within.
  3. Let go of the need to control and be open to uncertainty and the unknown.
  4. Work towards shifting your mood from reactive towards a more positive state.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider simplifying your life and removing the blocks to feeling at peace. Try reducing your workload or spending less time with people who stress you out. Focus on what’s important and necessary. Consider asking for help if it’s needed. Identify your mental, emotional, and mental needs and any barriers to having these met. Schedule time in your week to focus on you, your health, and your body. Let go of the things are aren’t serving you anymore and allow yourself to thrive!

Copyright Michelle Thompson 2021. Copyright Authentic World Inc 2021.


My name is Michelle. I have over twenty years of experience as a group facilitator, zen meditator, and public educator. I’ve helped thousands of people re-imagine their lives and create concrete plans for self-improvement. I’ve facilitated dozens of workshops and support groups on topics like stress management, mental health and wellness, goal setting, grief counselling, safety planning, and confidence building. I’m a former social worker and non-profit consultant, and after struggling for years with my own feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about who I was and what I wanted, I did the work and learned how to get out of my own way and create an authentic meaningful life for myself. Now I teach others to do the same. I created Authentic World Inc, to offer a supportive space for learning these important life skills.


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Published by Coach Michelle

Founder, Authentic World Inc

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