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When Mental Illness 'Survival Mode' No Longer Serves You

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If you are having a tough time and just got through the day today, I’m proud of you.

Sometimes simply breathing and taking it an hour, a minute or a second at a time is all you can do. There have been many, many times in my personal experience “survival mode” served a great purpose. It kept me alive.

I’m not a mental health professional, so I’m only speaking based off of my own subjective opinion and experience. However, I find the resilience of the human being to be incredible. I’ve met many amazing people who’ve been through traumas I personally couldn’t begin to fathom. Despite that, in my experience, these tend to be some of the kindest, most empathetic and wisest people I’ve encountered. I marvel at the fact humans can go through terrible things nobody should have to, and come out the other side a better version of themselves.

I feel my own traumas made me who I am today. I know it’s a cliche, but if my life was objectively “easy,” I probably wouldn’t be a writer. I probably wouldn’t have the dreams or aspirations I do. I wouldn’t have a story to tell. I wouldn’t have the level of empathy and understanding I feel that I’ve gained from those experiences. The same goes for you and your story.

I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for the majority of my almost 24 years of living. I still fail to fully understand it, though through introspection, “self-help” books such as Claim Your Power by Mastin Kipp and therapy over the years, I’ve come to learn these illnesses, in many people’s experiences, is a “normal” response to trauma and other “abnormal” events. I feel many who haven’t personally been affected by it, or know someone close to them who has, don’t understand this. I feel alongside the stigma, people with mental illness are unfairly put in a box. Living with an illness is not the same for everyone. Not everyone benefits from the same treatment. Sometimes illnesses like depression are trauma-based. Sometimes they may have genetic roots, or a little bit of both. It all ranges in symptoms and severity. I say all of this because I feel sharing personal experiences and talking openly about mental health breaks the stigma. When we break the stigma, it helps people break out of survival mode.

Survival mode is different for everyone. I must also stress how OK it is if all you did today was breathe and just make it through the day. However, I feel there is a difference between getting stuck in maladaptive patterns, and for survival mode serving a purpose. For me personally, survival mode no longer serves a purpose. It still very much lingers as the shoddy electrician who rewired my brain and shorted a few circuits out. I do not blame the human in me —I feel survival mode is what aided in evolving the human species to what we are today. However, shutting off that primal circuit and rewiring my brain has been a very difficult journey.

For me personally, survival mode looks like staying in bed all day. Sleeping the pain away. My home is the only place where I really, truly feel safe. I’m grateful to be able to feel safe somewhere, however, it takes a toll. It also looks like obsessing and planning for the absolute worst, irrational disaster scenario. It looks like isolating from everyone, yet also overworking myself in fear something might happen and I won’t be able to pay rent or put food in the fridge. It is also ironically having just enough energy to put on that “high-functioning” mask when out and about. It is also avoiding writing, my one true passion, because accessing that “place” feels too raw. These maladaptive coping skills have only exacerbated my depression and anxiety symptoms.

As survivors of mental illness and trauma, we are anything but weak. Therefore, we have that strength to recognize when survival mode no longer serves a purpose. Start here. Start today. Start by drinking more water. Start by walking one block every day this week, then two next week. Start by writing in a journal daily. I have been very hard on myself through this process, but one thing I’ve come to learn is any progress, no matter how slow, is good progress. Survival mode kept you alive and safe up to this point. I’m so thankful for that, because look at you — a resilient, badass human being who has risen from the ashes.

Now let’s become the best version of ourselves together.

Unsplash image by Andrew Neel

Originally published: December 19, 2019
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