Self-Care in Survival Mode
Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

Self-Care in Survival Mode

Are you in survival mode? Lately I feel that’s where I’m living. These days my body can’t shake the unstoppable buzz of anxiety and sadness with life right now. Throw in some seething anger and hair-tearing-out-inertia and you got 2020. And yet, I’m terrified of the future and sometimes feel paralyzed by the work ahead. There. Is. So. Much. To. Do. The election is only a few days away tomorrow! and these are scary times. I don’t want my kids to grow up in a world where there’s another year much like 2020. (Although there’s been some amazing humanity happening with people taking care of each other and anti-racism work that I hope only grows). 

All of this is in the background of my brain, but mostly on a day to day basis I’m just trying to mentally survive. I’m doing my best to stay healthy and sane, but damn — it’s hard isn’t it? The list of worries we carry are immense. I won’t run down my own personal list. I’m very fortunate in a lot of ways with supports and resources, but there’s still a lot of stress that I want to acknowledge and normalize. 

LIFE IS HARD RIGHT NOW. Let’s yell it from the rooftops. 

3 Steps for Self-Care in Survival 

Step 1: Recognize Survival Mode 

It’s obvious that life before 2020 was difficult and after 2020 will still be hard (harder for some than others). Death and illness will remain. Ignorance and hatred will exist. Stress will continue. Wow, I’m kind of a Debby Downer here… 

The good news is that once we can recognize our struggles (especially in survival mode) we can engage with them in a different way.  

This sounds simple, but often it’s easier said than done. I spent a good chunk of my life ignoring my personal struggles or seeing them in a distorted way. It came to a breaking point when I was a new mom. It took me a long time (too long) to admit that I was going through hell with my postpartum depression, but once I had some normal level of regulation I was able to crawl out of it with a handful of strategies to get me through the day.  I wasn’t calling it self-care then, but looking back that’s what it was. When I started to practice self-care intentionally it was purely out of survival. How do I stay alive today and keep my child alive as well? I didn’t ask these questions metaphorically, but in a literal sense of physical and mental safety. 

Step 2: Respect Survival Mode 

So what does survival mean? 

“Survival is the ability to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardships.” 

It’s a hope that humans don’t need to merely survive (or just exist), but there are times in crisis or ongoing stress where survival is our only option. We need to respect our body’s ability to get through the hardness of life. I mean, we should be having a little party or high-fiving ourselves for what we can accomplish. But in all seriousness, we need to respect and have compassion for the enormous challenges people are put through and our resilience to move toward better times. 

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Humans are designed to survive and we do it all kinds of ways, especially in the moment when we have to endure difficulties. Sometimes these survival tactics can be seen as disruptive or unhealthy by the people around us, but in reality they may be the very same strategies that helped us get through stressors in the past. For example, a student may shut down in class and refuse to do work if it’s difficult or they’re experiencing other significant stressors. In the past they have done this and avoided people or tasks that were overwhelming. Sure, they may have gotten in trouble, but they were able to avoid an experience that may have been painful or scary in that they didn’t have to open up and try. If their avoidance is more beneficial to them than not getting in trouble they will continue to shut down. 

We need to respect that we are designed to survive and appreciate this fact. At the same time, we need to challenge what was once helpful and check if the pattern is still helpful in navigating and managing the situation at hand. 

Step 3: Maneuver in Survival Mode 

Once we’ve recognized and respected our survival mode we can be more intentional with how we take care of ourselves. Some people claim self-care doesn’t include basic care like hygiene, but I consider self-care to be anything we do for our health. When we’re in survival mode (whether it’s for the day, the week, or the month) sometimes the most basic forms of health maintenance can help keep us afloat and even battle bouts of stress. 

But, how do we act intentionally or maneuver more effectively when we’re in survival mode?

  • Take care of the basics. It’s hard to function if you’re hungry, tired, sick, or generally unregulated. It’s helpful to remind yourself to shift expectations for what you can accomplish or manage. Take it one day or step at a time. Make accommodations and modifications when possible. 
  • Show yourself a little love. It’s easy to be negative or berate yourself when there’s a lot of stress, but doing so won’t make things any better. It’s coming from a place of habit and pain. Practice self-compassion and avoid getting sucked into a shame spiral. 
  • Get (and give) support where you can. Ask for help and connect with others in the most feasible ways. Sometimes a call can be too much — try texting. Ask yourself if the way you engage with social media is helpful or harmful for your social health. If you’re financially able to, consider “outsourcing” support by working with a therapist, grocery delivery, or other service to help lighten your stress load. 
  • Learn about yourself and strengthen your health during times of non/lighter stress. When you’re not in survival mode it helps to grow in your own social emotional skills, health, and knowledge. Having a strong foundation of self-care and self-knowledge creates a more effective buffer to the effects of stress when difficult times hit.

All of this is nice in theory, but when life is overwhelming it can be a lot to take in.  I’ve created a couple of resources to make it easier:

A downloadable Self-Care in Survival Mode Reminder Graphic (like the info above but prettier)

A Checklist + Reflection Guide that lists out strategies for different stages of “survival mode” and a place to jot down responses for your own experiences.

Journaling prompts to help you slow down and uncover deeper ways to take care of yourself during times of crisis.

I hope these resources are useful whether or not you’ve found yourself in your own personal “survival mode”. Share them with a friend. Email each other, do a video chat, or have a socially-distanced meet-up. Throw in some of your favorite refreshments and tunes. Make it work for you. 

When we can be open and talk about our struggles and have people around us who care — it gives us power to move from survival to fully alive thriving. Here’s to moving beyond survival and into something much, much better.

Leave a Reply