Survival Mode: A Cheatsheet for Thriving

by Kimberly Garner

What occupies the space of our mind determines our mental well-being, directly impacting our outcomes and the quality of our life. When we’re in some version of survival mode our peace of mind becomes compromised. Understanding the nuances of survival mode equips us with a mental survival toolkit. What exactly is survival mode? Survival mode is a triggered response set into effect when our instincts (hello subconscious mind) perceives a threat to one of our basic primal needs. Most people are continuously operating in some form of survival mode, yet not in the way we might initially assume. What are our basic primal needs? A primal need is a necessity for survival, we cannot live, let alone thrive without these most basic needs being met. Abraham Maslow studied exemplary humans and the thread they shared in common to reach personal fulfillment and actualization. He created a hierarchy of needs showing the fundamental levels for attaining personal transcendence. In order to move up the hierarchy, we need a solid foundation. This is where we find our basic primal needs: Physiological: air, water, food, shelter, warmth, sleep, sex Safety & Security: of body, employment, resources, morality, family, health, property Love & Belonging: connection, family, friends & sexual intimacy *note that sex is mentioned twice When one of our primary survival needs is at risk, uncertain or threatened the subconscious mind steps into high alert. The outdated beliefs and tactics of the subconscious kick into a hyperactive vigilance when triggered by survival mode. The subconscious has two roles, our physical survival and our emotional survival. “Keep me alive and keep me comfortable. Keep my body safe and keep my feelings safe.” By nature we seek equilibrium. When we slip into survival mode, the subconscious works fiercely to reinstate balance and stability. Under the influence of the subconscious, and in an attempt to regain balance, we overcompensate in a similar area of primal need which seemingly feels more within our control. “My boyfriend broke up with me (love & belonging), I’m going to eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s (food).” This shows up as one of three things: Self-soothing: I need to nurture myself through the pain. Self-medicating: I need to avoid or numb my pain. Self-sabotage: I see no way out, so I’ll destruct myself to end the pain. Awareness, curiosity and intention offer us fabulous tools for navigating survival mode and fertile opportunity for reprogramming the deeply embedded and outdated thoughts and beliefs operating in the backdrop of our mind. By simply bringing our awareness to the statements playing during the cycle of survival mode, we get immediate insight into the unhelpful core beliefs and a direct opportunity to re-mind our subconscious. Get Curious: As soon as we notice a slight feeling of stress, unease or panic slipping in, pause & ask: What’s triggering me into survival mode? Which of my primary needs feels threatened, uncertain or at risk? Is my situation acute (urgent) or chronic (long term)? Do I want to self-soothe to nurture myself, self-medicating to numb myself or self-sabotage to destroy the pain forever? What can I do now to help myself out of this situation? What’s essential? What’s no longer working or getting in my way? What do I most want? *Survival mode has a funny way of helping us recognize what’s most important and what we really want. Grab a Mental Lifeline: Stop the incessant train of thought from hijacking our immediate well-being Slow down the mind & redirect the hyper focus with the breath Our body keeps pace with the mind through the breath The mind is directly influenced by the breath Deepen and slow down your breathing Lengthen the duration of your inhale and exhale Inhale into the fullness of your belly, feel it expanding as you slowly breathe in Focus on the depth of your inhale and exhale, until you feel your nervous system settle into the stillness and peace of the present moment Focus on one word or phrase that soothes you, repeat for several minutes to quiet and redirect the panic toward and ease Trust life has your back, a treasure awaits you on the other side