Survival Mode Recovery

Written by guest contributor Stephenie Craig, LCSW

Have you found yourself coming out of a time of crisis wondering, what do I do now? Maybe you battled the illness and rang the bell. Maybe you moved and found yourself trying to resettle. Maybe you went through a painful loss or ending of a relationship and find yourself trying to pick up the pieces.

Your body and brain are uniquely suited for managing stress and will often automatically go into survival mode when life gets overwhelming. For a time, you can survive on less sleep, less adequate nutrition, and less-than-ideal coping skills. Your brain moves away from higher-level thinking tasks and focuses on the next step you must take to get through the day. Survival mode is a biological gift while you’re in the midst of high stress and emotional turmoil that might otherwise take you down.

When your stress is prolonged and intense, it can be hard to figure out what you’re supposed to do when the stress subsides. It can take your body and brain time to catch up with your circumstances and return to a calmer state. So, how can you intentionally help your body and mind recover from the heightened state of survival mode?

5 Self-Kindness Practices to Promote Survival Mode Recovery:

  1. Create space for backlogged emotions. Often during times of high stress, your brain sorts overwhelming emotions to the side to support daily functioning. When the crisis ends, you may experience large waves of emotion pertaining to the crisis. Let yourself feel without judgement. Your emotions don’t need to be rational. They simply need pathways to escape your body to complete the release of stress. Let yourself cry, create, be athletic, journal, go to therapy, vent to a friend, punch a punching bag. Releasing emotion provides a pathway for your body to return to a normal state.

  2. Create space for rest. Often during a crisis, rest falls off the priority list. When the crisis ends, you may find yourself physically and mentally exhausted. You may feel forgetful, confused, fatigued or irritable. Take naps, prioritize healthy sleep patterns, read a book for leisure, take a weekend away.

  3. Return to healthy practices. During crisis, things like taking walks, attending small group, yoga, deep breathing, and personal growth reading become hard to continue and often disappear entirely. When life calms, remember healthy practices that provided life-giving foundation before the crisis. Try choosing one or two healthy practices and slowly and consistently return to them.

  4. Be aware of numbing activities. Under intense stress, most people begin unhealthy coping skills to numb and avoid facing difficult emotions. Common numbing activities including substance abuse, eating to medicate feelings, overspending, binging shows, binging social media, and engaging in unhealthy relationships. Try not to judge yourself harshly when you identify numbing. Instead, show grace to yourself. You’ve been through something hard. Try acknowledging your numbing, and intentionally begin substituting healthier practices and coping skills. Ask for help if your numbing has become addictive.

  5. Pursue joy. When you’ve been through something hard, it’s not unusual to notice you’ve begun trying to protect yourself from joy. Joy can be as vulnerable as hurt and sadness, especially when faced with imagined or actual traumatic loss. Your brain might trick you into believing you will experience less pain if you avoid joy. Try telling yourself the truth that experiencing joy is not going to create more pain. In fact, avoiding joy simply robs you of joy. When hard times come, the joy you allow yourself to experience is much more likely to bring comfort than to intensify pain.

As you take steps to move from crisis to normalcy, remember to be kind and patient with yourself. Harsh words and self-criticism are unproductive and feed depression, anxiety, and discontent. With care and intentional practice, your body and mind will sync up with your life circumstances. Know you aren’t alone, and survival mode recovery is a natural part of the human experience. Also, be on the lookout for increased insight that comes through suffering that may surface as you recover. You may also find you have a deeper compassion for others going through what you’ve recently experienced, which you may eventually want to channel into pouring into others as you move through your recovery from survival mode.

Stephenie Craig is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and professional therapist with 19 years of experience specializing in emotional/relational health counseling. Stephenie loves hearing others’ stories and helping people find new perspective that produces peace, healing, and connection.