blurry stressed woman grabs head

Are you in “Survival Mode”?


“I’m ALWAYS tired” was a common statement Janine heard herself say throughout the day.  Not only did she feel exhausted at the end of the day, but she woke up feeling unrested.   Strangely, however, she felt both tired and “wired” once bedtime came. 

 As she moved through her day, she felt she was only checking the necessary boxes.  She felt simply incapable of focusing on the future. It felt like too much to ask. 

Any small inconvenience that deviated from her routine became unbearable. The grocery store selling out of her favorite coffee creamer, or receiving an unexpected email from a client, became another “to do” added to a schedule that already seemed to be overflowing. It all almost felt threatening.  She felt like she couldn’t cope.

She forgot everything.  This was the third time she forgot to sign her son’s permission slip for school. She felt embarrassed and ashamed. “I can’t get myself together. I’m a bad mom.” It was harder not to lose her temper at her kids, even when they behaved.

When it was time to go to bed at night, she couldn’t “turn off”.  Her mind spiraled with endless guilt, shame, and self-judgment, evaluating all the things that had gone wrong in the day while simultaneously trying to get ahead for tomorrow.  The only way to decompress was to pour herself a large glass of wine and pass out on the couch until it was time to go to bed, go to sleep and do it all again the next day.  She felt like she was barely keeping her head above water.

What is “survival mode”?

Survival mode is another term for continuous, unresolved stress, also known as chronic stress.  All human beings have experienced stress at one point or another, but in survival mode, stress has been prolonged to a degree where a person feels unable to relax.  Parts of the brain associated with fear are overactive.

You may be in survival mode if you:

  • Are constantly moody and short-tempered, quick to anger at loved ones or situations that are slightly irritating
  • Are unable to relax
  • Have difficulty focusing
  • Have difficulty making small decisions
  • Are tired even after long periods of rest
  • Can’t enjoy downtime
  • Can’t handle the slightest inconvenience
  • Often feel threatened by criticism
  • Feel the need to numb yourself with alcohol or drugs
  • Have difficulty remembering 

People who are in survival mode can often increase their risk for anxiety and depression, as both the body and brain constantly work overtime to achieve feelings of safety.  This constant mental activity requires the individual to be hyper-alert at all times, which leads to mental and physical exhaustion.


What is the difference between healthy stress and chronic/survival mode stress?

Stress is a change in an internal or external environment that requires a reaction from the body to adjust. As a result, the body responds physically or mentally.  

Positive stress or “eustress” is beneficial as it stimulates performance or provides protection.   Eustress drives a person to make a deadline, escape danger, and be more alert to surroundings. 

In stress, the sympathetic nervous system, associated with fight or flight is activated. The body responds in ways to protect the individual: rapid breaths to draw in more oxygen, quickened heart rate to increase the blood flow and oxygen to muscles,  and released adrenaline and cortisol for alertness and high physical performance.  

By nature, the stress response is intended to be short-lived.  Once the environment becomes safe again, the individual will return to a less heightened physical state, allowing the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system to take over, allowing for relaxation. After the stressor has subsided, the body eventually “shakes off” the fear and returns to a state of calm.

Stress becomes chronic when a person experiences frequent stress-producing stimuli without a return to comfortable normalcy in between stressors.  As a result, the body and mind cannot return to a rested state.  Individuals experiencing chronic stress are hypervigilant, physically tense and “on edge”, unable to return to a deepened, relaxed state required for recovery.  


What causes chronic stress?

Stressful situations and environments that are unpredictable and fear-provoking contribute to chronic stress.  These can range from continuous phone and email notifications to dangerous, traumatic living situations where constant caution is required to keep out of danger.

These persistent situations can cause a stress-rewiring of the brain, to where stress is expected and exists as a default state. After a while, stress has shown to be addictive as the brain releases dopamine, activating the brain’s reward center.  As the purpose of stress is to guard against danger, the brain considers this a positive response to be rewarded.  

Why is chronic stress dangerous?

A Stress state requires a great deal of energy to maintain and is designed to be temporary.

Constant chronic stress requires this energy to be maintained for a greater, unsustainable period of time.  Effects of stress such as shallowed breathing, decreased blood flow to major organs, and lessened ability to recover can cause illness. As a result, the body receives inadequate oxygen supply to cells, reducing the ability to digest food and creating overall exhaustion in the organs required to produce stress hormones. 

In addition to health issues, chronic stress also interferes with other brain functions.   If the sympathetic nervous system (in charge of fight or flight) is always activated, it becomes impossible for the brain to prioritize anything else. The brain is trained to look for imminent danger. In a chronically stressed state, other executive functions are troublesome as the brain deems them “less pressing.”  Individuals experiencing chronic stress may find it difficult and get overwhelmed by day-to-day or long-term decisions.    Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs offers further explanation: prioritizing safety needs over self-actualization. 

Delegating time between “necessary survival” and long-term future planning and relationship maintenance becomes increasingly tricky as stress accumulates.


How can chronic stress and survival mode be treated?


Those who struggle with chronic stress and survival mode are often given stress management tools to increase levels of relaxation. These may include:


  • Breathing exercises
  • Physical activity
  • Talking through it
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol
  • Making time for rest and breaks
  • Seeking therapeutic support


How does Accelerated Resolution Therapy help you break out of “survival mode”?

Many people who have received treatment for chronic stress and trauma find that other therapies and drugs are useful for managing and coping with symptoms but are often caught in “management” for years without resolution.  


Accelerated Resolution Therapy’s combination of eye movements, connection with the body during treatment, and image rescripting allow those struggling with survival mode and trauma to break out of the cycle that is often perpetuated by talk therapy alone. 


The eye movements incorporate both the left and right sides of the brain, which helps the client process information through a deep feeling of relaxation. 

Simultaneously painful or traumatic images are rewritten with the help of soothing image replacement, while the client is invited to check in with their body to monitor the shifting of emotions. 


Several testimonials have found ART to be a long-term solution for chronic stress, trauma, depression, anxiety, and other contributors to survival mode.  


If you are currently in survival mode, know that this is not a permanent condition. Treatment is available. 

Find an ART-trained therapist near you: Therapist Directory – Accelerated Resolution Therapy