If you’ve ever walked through an incredibly stressful season or some difficult circumstances, you may have experienced what myself and others call “survival mode.” It’s that mentality or feeling of just trying to get through it, trying to hold on, trying to survive. It happens when the demands of life are simply too much to handle, to process or feel, and therefore, you just toughen up and attempt to push through it.
I’ve spent many years in what I would call survival mode, just trying to hold on until dawn breaks. I was committed to fake it ‘til I made it, hoping that I would find the end of the grueling seasons of craziness and busyness, and come out on the other side in one piece. For me, some of this surviving—or as others may call it: coping— started young, as a way to process childhood trauma. Then some of it came out of the craziness that comes with adult life – jobs, marriage, parenting, relationships, and so much more.
A few years ago my wife and I found out that our expected son, 20 weeks along, was not growing as he should in the womb. We started seeing a Neo-natal specialist three times a week, every week, each visit potentially being the day we delivered, or the day we lost him. When we finally did induce and deliver at 34 weeks, our new 4lb baby, named Hudson, couldn’t breath on his own, and needed a nerve-racking month-long stay in the NICU. Once home, the healthstruggles continued, and haven’t fully let up, even three years later. This put us in survival mode.
If you’ve lived long enough, you have stories of your own, stories of stress, anxiety, and pain. You may even be walking through a season right now that has left you wounded and just trying to survive. Those are such difficult days, and they can feel like they may last forever. But can I just encourage you? I just want you to know that you’re going to be ok. Storms pass and seasons change. They may take a heck of a long time to do so, but remember that you won’t have to walk through this forever, and there is grace for you in your season of surviving.
It’s important to note that there are a lot of dangers that come with living in survival mode. At its core, survival mode is both a means of protecting yourself, and a reallocation of your internal resources to what’s most pressing and demanding. As a result, it becomes extremely difficult to live life to the full in this state. We become like plants that go dormant for the winter, focused on surviving the harsh conditions, rather than coming into bloom. This may be necessary for a time, but is not the fullness of who we’re created to be.
How do you know if you’re in survival mode?
You aren’t experiencing joy
Living in survival mode can often leave you feeling numb. In those stressful moments we attempt to detach from emotions and anxieties in order to function. The problem is that those feelings don’t actually go away, they are just suppressed, which leaves us a bit more numb than we were before. If another stressful or hurtful circumstance comes along later, it is added to the mix, slowly accumulating like layers of insulation around our hearts, which keeps the hurt out, but also keeps our feelings hidden deep within. This eventually leads to a perpetual numbing, a detachment from deep feelings, and we’re left with a lingering dullness and ache. It’s difficult to experience joy when your heart is wrapped in layers of pain.
You are neglecting self-care
Survival mode often means that the “non-essential” pieces of our lives get pushed to the side. We hang on only to what is deemed necessary at the time. The problem lies in our judgement regarding what we deem necessary, and our lack of control over how long the survival season will last. It may be acceptable to miss taking a shower for a day, but if is stretched into days, weeks, and months, that’s a different story… In seasons of survival, we often neglect areas of self-care that are essential to our health. Stillness, healthy eating, exercise, relationships, and hobbies are all part of a healthy life. When we neglect these for long periods of time, our whole being will suffer.
You are constantly tired
Surviving takes a lot of energy. When you are in these seasons of high stress, you are always on guard, always waiting for or attempting to prevent the next emergency. This is exhausting. If you are always tired, never relaxed, never at peace, you may be surviving rather than thriving.
What to do if you’re in survival mode?
Don’t let surviving be an excuse for sinning
There may be some things that need to be set aside while you walk through this season, but don’t let your relationship with God be one of them. Don’t let surviving excuse sinning. Sin by definition is a turning away from God and His plans for you. To willingly choose to wander from God’s instruction will only cause you more hurt, pain ,and death, which leads you to bury deeper into your trench, not free you from it. The lie that we often believe is that sin in whatever form will bring us joy and freedom. But we’ve all experienced the end of that road, and it never is what was promised. God wants to walk with you through this season, but this works best when we listen to Him.
Don’t let survival mode isolate you from your most important relationships
Seasons of stress, pain, and anxiety can often be isolating. We don’t have as much energy to invest in others, and we can also find it difficult to be continuously open and real about the struggles we’re walking through. I want to tell you that it is truly okay to distance yourself from some of the relationships in your life that are unhealthy and superficial. However, do not distance yourself from those closest to you, that love you, and are willing to walk with you in the trenches. We can’t do this alone. Find those that you can trust, and be honest, be vulnerable, ask for help.
Don’t let survival mode become your new normal
There is an extra danger that comes for those that are walking through extended seasons of survival. Surviving can become your new normal. You get used to the trench. You get used to “just getting by” or “hanging in there,” and forget what it’s like to thrive. What can happen is that the stressful season can end, and yet we remain in the trench. We remain hidden. We made our home in the trenches, found our security in hiding, and may now live in fear that another war is coming. We don’t come back to fully living. Some of us are like gardens that haven’t realized that winter is over. It’s time to come back to life. If you’re having trouble doing that, I’d encourage you to find someone to talk to about it. What is keeping you from coming alive again?
Life is full of difficult seasons, but there is hope for each of us. Jesus said in John 10:10 that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” God promises us more than survival. He promises thriving, and that thriving is not found in us being good enough or strong enough, it’s found in relationship with Him. May you come alive again in Him today.