Imagine this: You made it to work, but you’re just doing the bare minimum. You feed yourself, but it’s mostly sandwiches, fast food, or other low-effort meals. Your house is a mess, but you manage to do your laundry once a week and wash a plate so you can eat. It seems like you are floating through life, managing the things you HAVE to do, but unable to find the time and energy to do anything else, even the things you enjoy? If this sounds familiar, you may be living in survival mode.

What is Survival Mode?          

Survival mode is a fancy new way of saying you’re barely getting by. It gets its name from video games that have a super hard mode where the main goal is just not to die. I couldn’t find a clinical paper that describes survival mode, so it appears to be a term created by the public to describe a difficult time rather than by doctors or mental health professionals.

Survival mode is an evolutionary stress response. It seems like the “cool kids” way of saying the old classic: fight or flight mode (though scientists now understand that our bodies have a third automatic reaction, freeze). According to health line, this response can be over-reactive and triggered when we aren’t actually facing immediate threats.

What Does Survival Mode Look Like?

Each person experiences survival mode a little differently, and it relates to how they handle stress. But in most cases, you will experience typical stress responses like increased heart rate, muscle twitching, agitation, depression, and more. People may avoid their responsibilities, eat more, spend more, or even sleep more in response. The VA Healthcare Center for Integrated Health has a wonderful fact sheet on common stress responses.

Why Are We Living in Survival Mode?

This year has been hard. There’s a global pandemic, a huge divide in the US on politics, people are getting killed in the streets, terrorists are plotting to kidnap and murder governors, wildfires, hurricanes, explosions, racial tensions – the list of things we have dealt with this year seems endless. I can’t remember another year that brought so much turmoil and uncertainty. I’m shocked that more people aren’t living in survival mode.

Survival Mode and Depression

I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, or any type of mental health professional. In my unprofessional opinion, survival mode looks an awful lot like depression. To be completely honest, I can’t even tell them apart in myself. Am I feeling exhausted, fatigued, and unsure of things because chemicals in my brain aren’t working right now, or is it because of all the crazy nonsense that’s been happening all year long?  And if it is because of the external world, isn’t it technically normal to feel this way? There’s nothing wrong with feeling like you’re in survival mode when the world is burning around you.

However, there’s also nothing wrong with seeking help if you’re feeling this way. I did – I went to the doctor for my anxiety and depression, and I’ve definitely seen improvement. If you are struggling, there is no shame and seeing someone about it.

How Do You Stop Living in Survival Mode?

I only just realized that I’m living in survival mode, but I’m pledging to stop, right here and right now. But it isn’t always as easy as just saying, “I’m done.” That’s fighting thousands of years of evolutionary response. It isn’t impossible to get out of survival mode, though. Here are some of the things I’m doing that should help – hopefully, you can find things on this list that will help you as well.

See a Doctor

I already mentioned that I’m seeing a doctor for my anxiety and depression, but I honestly think it’s one of the best things you can do. You don’t have to struggle; you can get help.

Now I know how much of an immense privilege it is to see a doctor in a place without universal healthcare, so I’ve done some research on other things you can do that might help. Remember, I’m not a doctor or a medical professional in any way, and if you can, going there should be your first choice.

Ask for Help

Sometimes, we are in survival mode because we are taking on way too much. Maybe you thought that you could handle working full time while watching the kids go to school remotely while also keeping the house clean and keeping the family fed. But the reality is that’s a lot for anyone to handle. It’s okay to ask for help, whether from a partner, friend, or family member.

If you have extra cash, you can even pay for it. Hiring a cleaning service to come twice a week might make all the difference. A virtual assistant could help you automate some computer tasks. Buying pre-cooked easy dinners might give you more time to focus on other tasks. It’s okay to outsource the things that you can’t do yourself.

Give Yourself a Break

It’s okay not to be able to do everything. If you don’t have anyone to help you, it’s okay to let some things slide. The laundry doesn’t need to be folded. The floor doesn’t need to be swept; the toys don’t need to be put away. Identify the things that don’t actually matter as much and let them go.

It’s also okay to do some things poorly. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, so even if you can’t manage to clean the whole house, wiping the counter is a start. If exercising for 30 minutes is out of reach, do 10 minutes of stretching. It’s worth it.

Take Time for Self-Care

Once you have permission for a break, you should spend that time in relaxation mode. Whether you have 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or more, there is a method of self-care that can help you feel better about your day. Check out this post on self-care Sunday for ideas on how you can incorporate some self-care into your daily routine.

Plan and Organize Your Time

One thing that has helped me breakthrough survival mode and get more done than basic survival is planning my day. If I write a to-do list, I’m more likely to focus on the list and accomplish the tasks on it. If I write down what I’m going to accomplish in a planner or a journal, I’m more likely to stick to it.

Writing my day out like this has helped me stay productive even when I feel like I can’t accomplish anything. It’s been a big help.


Another big thing that’s helped me is finding people who are feeling similar and talking with them. I’ve discussed my feelings with my best friend over our weekly zoom call and talked with folks on social media who are going through similar emotions. And you know? It helps.

Realizing that there are a ton of people who are going through exactly what you are doesn’t make the struggles go away, but it does help to know you aren’t alone. And sometimes those people we talk to have developed new methods of coping that we never considered. My best friend is the one who made me realize that I’ve been in survival mode these past few months. Twitter has been helping me cope. Commiserating with like minding people helps you feel a sense of community and engagement, which can be comforting in such trying times.

Get Off Social Media

It’s funny that I’m saying to get rid of social media right after I said my Twitter friends have been helping me cope. But I don’t mean get rid of all social media. I mean get rid of toxic social media. Facebook is the worst offender to me. I have old friends, and family members who have bought into the most insane theories out there, and seeing their hateful rhetoric on a constant basis makes me incredibly anxious. But it’s like a train wreck – I can’t look away. I have to read the hateful comments, understand where they are getting this crazy information, and even respond with a little bit of sanity.

It’s not worth it. As much as I try to be reasonable and diplomatic, some folks are too far in. They don’t want to hear anything that contradicts their worldview. They just want to call everyone who doesn’t agree with them evil. I’ve tried so hard not to lock myself in a bubble surrounded only by those who agree with me, but unfortunately, that’s done nothing but stress me out. But instead of blocking folks I don’t agree with, I’m just taking a break from the platform. Hopefully, we will find ways to bridge the gap in the future.

How Are You Coping with Survival Mode?

Based on the way the world is right now and my conversations on Twitter, I know that I’m not alone in survival mode. Who is there with me? How are you coping? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

This post originally appeared on Partners in Fire and was republished with permission

Featured image Photo by Ian Keefe on Unsplash