A young woman sits on her bed. She feels herself in survival mode, which is leading to chronic stress and exhaustion.

Survival Mode Isn’t What You Think It Is

5 min.

Survival mode is more than a short-term coping strategy to get through difficult times, it can actually look like chronic stress and exhaustion.

By: Sarah Fielding

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini

January 2, 2024

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Table of Contents

In life, most people deal with challenges. These difficult experiences, which may include loss, mental health issues, or enduring a traumatic event, can cause you to enter survival mode, a way of living marked by chronic stress and exhaustion (sometimes referred to as being in “survival brain.”) 

Though not a mental health condition in and of itself, being in survival mode can take a toll on your mental health, making you feel like you’re constantly treading water or have the weight of the world on your shoulders. The good news is that help is available. Below, we delve into why survival mode happens, how to identify it, and tips for getting out of survival mode and into a healthier mental state.

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What is survival mode? 

Being in survival mode is akin to constantly being in a state of stress and is marked by physical and mental exhaustion. According to Charlie Health Primary Therapist Meghan Jensen, LPC, survival mode is brought on by “prolonged stress to the degree that a person feels that they cannot relax and parts of their brain associated with fear are overactive.” 

Although survival mode isn’t a formal mental health condition, Jensen says that being within this mode can increase peoples’ risk for anxiety and depression, as the body and brain are working in overdrive to achieve a feeling of safety. 

Signs of survival mode

Many indicators of survival mode mirror mental health conditions and might even be indicators of certain disorders like anxiety or depression. As it’s not a diagnosable state, it’s up to you — ideally with the aid of a mental health professional — to review symptoms and take action accordingly. According to Jensen, signs of survival mode include: 

  • An inability to relax
  • Feeling threatened by feedback or criticism
  • Appearing moody or short-tempered or quick to get angry at people close to them
  • Struggling to focus
  • Difficulty having downtime
  • Impaired memory
  • Taking alcohol or drugs to “numb” themselves
  • Issues coping with minor inconveniences
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Causes of survival mode

Poor mental health (including survival mode) doesn’t always have one clear source. It’s often an amalgamation of different experiences, both recent and long past. Jensen says some examples of specific triggers are “stressful situations and environments that are unpredictable or fear-provoking.” 

Survival mode can also stem from high levels of constant stress or burnout — feelings our society often commends as working hard versus acknowledging their danger. Additional potential causes of survival mode include traumatic living situations, receiving threatening messages, living with trauma, or having prolonged grief

3 tips for getting out of survival mode

Survival mode is a place you want to stay for as short a period as possible. But making your way out of survival mode can be challenging and all-around scary. It requires time, patience, and potentially making some changes in your day-to-day—but with the right support, it’s possible to leave survival mode behind. Here are three steps Jensen recommends taking to get out of survival mode (in addition to seeking professional help, like therapy).

Focus on self-care

No, doing a face mask won’t beat survival mode, but there’s a lot more to self-care than that (plus, it probably wouldn’t hurt). It’s critical to take the time to learn how to self-soothe and care for yourself if experiencing chronic stress. These techniques could be as simple as writing out your concerns for stress management or taking a long bath. They might be more involved steps like creating a workout routine (that focuses on how you feel mentally, not on overexerting yourself) or getting a massage. The key is not to do something because you think you should but because it improves your well-being — even if that thing is a face mask.  

Part of this process involves self-compassion, adds Jensen. It can be challenging to employ sometimes, but self-compassion allows you to accept that you are not superhuman (no one is) and that your well-being is worth prioritizing. Part of self-care and self-compassion can even be allowing yourself to feel hopeful — hopeful that you won’t always feel this way and that lighter, brighter days are ahead. 

Get in touch with your body

The physical body has a tremendous impact on mental health. As a result, there are many movements and exercises (both whole body and breathing) that you can try to move out of survival mode. Meditation, grounding exercises, and deep diaphragmatic breathing use the breath and the weight of the body to help you relax. The latter, in particular, has benefits such as improved calm and relaxation, interrupting and distracting from negative thoughts, and lowering your heart rate. Full-body movements like progressive muscle relaxation, exercise and rhythmic movement, and trauma-sensitive yoga can also be beneficial toward leaving survival mode. 

Set boundaries

Sometimes, people enter survival mode, at least in part, because they’ve overextended themselves. You might want to please everyone and never say no, but that can make you feel run down, overwhelmed, and unable to escape stress. A loved one should understand why you need to say no sometimes and respect that decision. Setting boundaries and saying no to people can help create the space — both in your day and mentally — to get out of survival mode. 

A young man is talking to his father and setting boundaries.

How Charlie Health can help 

If being in survival mode is impacting your mental health, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions; this includes people who are experiencing survival brain because of a traumatic experience or struggling with physical symptoms of survival mode. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing your stress response, calming your nervous system, and getting out of survival mode is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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