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It's OK If You're Functioning in Survival Mode Right Now

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Last night I had my first panic attack in several years, and I have to say, I didn’t love it. I am used to intense emotions, I’m used to racing thoughts, but a panic attack is a whole different ball game.

Basically, as I laid down to go to sleep, my brain was bombarded with thoughts of, “I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” like it has been every night for the last week. But this time, instead of gently reminding myself this is a difficult time and my brain might think some strange, unwanted thoughts right now, my body took over. All of the sudden, it felt like there was a very real, very immediate threat of death. I couldn’t breathe, I was crying, and somehow, it felt like my cells were dying. I don’t know if that’s a thing for other people, but in that moment, it was like I could actually feel each cell in my body just… dying.

To be honest, this moment has been a long time coming. Like I said, every night this week, I’ve gone to bed thinking “I’m gonna die” over and over and over. I have nightmares every night. My heart pounds every time I have to go to the store. Basically, I’m in survival mode. My brain and body are trying their best to prepare me for a life-or-death scenario, because in many ways, that is what we’re experiencing right now.

What Is Survival Mode?

Survival mode is a mental state where our brains are doing everything they can to keep us safe, regardless of what other functions they have to throw out the window to make that happen.

When we’re in survival mode, we are consistently activating our sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of reacting to stressful or dangerous situations. It brings our heart rate up, tenses our muscles, releases stress hormones and more. All of this is meant to help us survive anything. Other mental processes become a lot more difficult while in survival mode because so much energy is being devoted to the sympathetic nervous system.

You may have noticed your organizational skills, emotional resilience, memory, patience, creativity or basic hygiene have suffered during this time, and it’s likely because survival mode is taking up too much brainpower for you to effectively manage those other things as well.

Why Are We In Survival Mode?

Survival mode absolutely makes sense right now, even if you personally aren’t in much danger from COVID-19. For instance, I’m a relatively young, healthy person and if I got coronavirus, I would probably be fine. But what if I get it and give it to my infant son? Or what if I give it to someone at the store who takes care of an elderly parent? What if I give it to a pregnant person? Every move I make is a matter of life and death for someone, even if that someone isn’t me.

Another reason our brains and bodies are in survival mode right now is because we just don’t know how long this is going to last, and that brings up a lot of issues of survival.

On a basic level, our routines have been disrupted, and we have no idea when they’ll be able to return. At first, this might not seem like a matter of survival, but it really is. Our brains know that our usual routine is safe. If we get up, go to work, come home, make dinner, snuggle with our baby and go to sleep every day and we don’t die, we automatically learn “OK, this must be safe.” Realistically, we will probably be just as safe, if not safer, hanging out in our houses all day, but we have never been stuck at home like this before. And anything new is a threat to our survival brain because we haven’t done it before. We have no data from past experience to support the idea that it’s safe.

On another, maybe more practical level, an ongoing crisis brings up the issue of resources. You know how when you’re working out, you watch the timer like a hawk? You think “OK I did five minutes, I just need to do that five more times. I can do five minutes five times.” You know you want to work out for half an hour, and you can pace yourself to get through the whole thing. We can’t do that right now, and that’s very scary from a survival point of view.

Because we don’t know when this is going to end, we can’t ration our resources effectively. That applies to material resources, like toilet paper and meat, but it also applies to mental resources like resilience. Not knowing when a terrible disaster is going to end means that, on some level, our brains have to prepare us for it to never end. That is the only way to ensure we survive. At the same time, our logical brain is trying to reassure us that of course this will end, we just have to get through it. But logical brain can’t tell us how long until we’re “through it,” so survival brain takes over again.

What Does Survival Mode Feel Like?

Survival mode is different for everyone, but here are a few feelings or experiences it might create:

  • Consistently high anxiety for no discernible reason. Survival mode likes to fly under the radar, which means even if you’re really feeling anxious for all the reasons above, you might not be consciously thinking about those things, so it feels like you’re anxious out of the blue.
  • Anger. Survival mode uses the fight/flight/freeze response as one of its main mechanisms, and for people who tend toward the fight response, anger may be your primary emotion right now. Anger at things being closed, anger at things re-opening too soon, anger at everything.
  • Hopelessness. If some part of you has to function under the belief that this impossible and tragic situation is going to last forever, it makes sense that you may feel incredibly hopeless.
  • Weird calmness. Many people who deal with anxiety on a daily basis find themselves feeling oddly calm throughout this whole thing because it’s like the world is finally on their level.
  • Exhaustion. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated consistently without a break, it really wears us down.
  • Indecision. One of the first things that goes out the window for me when my brain is in survival mode is decision-making. When everything feels like a potential threat, even the tiny choices become really hard to make.
  • Memory loss. You may find yourself going to bed with genuinely no idea what you did today. While that can be really scary, it doesn’t mean you’re going crazy. Survival mode is all about getting through the day, and sometimes the best way to do that with the least amount of pain is to float through the day without remembering much.
  • Panic attacks. When the sympathetic nervous system is overloaded, it generates panic. It feels like the vague threat you’ve been facing is suddenly very real and you are about to die.

How Can We Cope With Survival Mode?

Even though survival mode is largely subconscious, there are still conscious things we can do to lessen its impact on our lives.

As a disclaimer, I should say that I have not actually tried all of these things. I want to, but survival mode has a way of making me feel like I can’t try anything new, even if it’s supposed to help me. It probably has something to do with the issue I mentioned before, of how anything new is seen as a threat in survival mode, even something that is supposed to be good. So if you’re in the same boat, I get it. These are just a few things you can try if you feel up to it.

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). This is a technique that involves tensing muscles throughout your body briefly, then relaxing them. Tensing the muscles goes along with the sympathetic nervous system, but then when you relax the muscles, it tells the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. This is the part of the nervous system that calms us down. If you can trick your brain into going into parasympathetic mode instead of sympathetic mode, it will help you relax.
  • Slow your breathing. Just like the PMR, slowing your breathing can trick your body into engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and calming down slightly. Personally, I really love following this gif from Healthline for a while until I feel a bit more calm:
Meditation Breathe GIF - Find Share on GIPHY
  • Exercise. Sometimes exercise can help relieve the stress caused by survival mode because it gives you somewhere to channel all of that fight/flight/freeze energy generated by the sympathetic nervous system. Just be careful that you don’t push it too hard. If you get your heart rate too high, you may actually end up triggering a panic attack instead (I’ve been there).
  • Try to simply be more aware of survival mode. Honestly, just recognizing that you’re in survival mode and that means your life might look a little different right now can help tremendously. Lower your expectations for this time and allow yourself to simply survive, whatever that looks like.

And that’s pretty much everything I know about surviving survival mode. I am by no means an expert, but I have experienced getting stuck in long-term survival mode before, so I am somewhat of a veteran in this area. That doesn’t mean I’m handling it any better this time, but it does mean I have more words to describe what I’m experiencing and I can share those words so that you have the words for it now too.

A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog, Megan Writes Everything.

Getty image via Aleutie

Originally published: May 16, 2020
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