This year has been the test of a lifetime for many of us, with a cycle of constant change and uncertainty. Human biology doesn’t react well to change—it often triggers us into believing we’re in danger and engages our survivor selves, who immediately begins making a plan to stop feeling uncertain, scared or in danger. But with so much change, it’s been impossible to plan, so these anxious, stressful, depressed feelings are in perpetual play, ultimately spinning out of control. We begin to hyperfunction and our brain goes into overdrive trying to figure out the fastest ways to not feel these uncomfortable and fearful feelings. As you can tell, this is counterintuitive – creating more of the very thing we are trying to get away from.

How do I know if I’m in Survivor Mode?  

The obvious way survival mode shows up in our lives is through anxiety, depression, stress, and grief. But the subtle ways it shows up are things like crankiness, irritability, feeling resentful, hypercritical, lethargic, or just being easily set off by little inconveniences. When it peaks to the point of an argument, we lack perspective and begin to spiral into our reactive emotions, resulting in conflict with those closest to us. You might feel off balance or not as sharp as you used to. On a deeper level, everything might be feeling like life or death, or simply like too much to handle. 

What happens if we get stuck here? 

By not addressing or releasing our emotions we can get stuck in a protect and react mode and we’re not able to look at how to reconcile or connect. This can put everything we cherish at stake—our happiness, our life force, the quality of life, relationships, jobs and our health. It feels like a hamster wheel … never ending and with no obvious way to get off. We will crash and burn with total depletion that could even force us to fall into depression. We want to run or fight, it’s our natural instinct. The survivor part of us is so strong that it will do anything so we don’t feel through these feelings, even making you believe you’re in a life or death situation and force you to become reactive to everything. 

What we actually need is to be gentle with ourselves. 

When we get into these survivor states, naturally we think we can just power through. We have an aversion to feelings that are painful or hard so we try and think ourselves away from these feelings. Or we begin to fixate on these emotions and rather than work through them, we become controlled by them. We can begin criticizing or judging ourselves for how anxious, stressed or scared we are. But imagine a child who has just fallen — do you yell at them for falling, or do you hold them to comfort them? Treat your emotions in the same sense. If you fall, don’t judge yourself. Try to be compassionate and curious with yourself, not harsh or hurtful. 

Building awareness creates change. 

The first place to start in shifting out of this is to build awareness. Try and slow down enough to notice when you are experiencing a stress response. A stress response could be feeling irritable, frustrated, cranky, avoidant or hyper focused on something. Use this as a queue to pause and ask yourself – what is really going on underneath? Let yourself feel every emotion all the way through. Our emotions are always close to the surface, so when we feel them we try to either push them away or push them down. But emotions are energy, and when we subdue these reactive feelings it can show up physically in our lives. You might notice the quality of your sleep decline or begin to experience digestive issues. 

The first and most important step is to just recognise what is happening. Then you can ask yourself, what is really going on? A lot of the time you’ll get a primary emotion such as sad or angry but try to go a little further. Once you’re there, stay with it and eventually, it will always pass naturally. Our emotions are just like waves, they come and go but never stick around for too long. Tend to your emotions and create a space where you can comfortably release and let go. 

Community is a counter-intuitive support for uncertainty. 

One final thing to consider is that anxiety feeds off of solitude – our minds become an echo chamber repeating the same scary thoughts a hundred times over. When we are in community, we can voice those fears and have a place for it to dissipate. Or we can listen to others in their states of uncertainty and feel both comfort in not being alone, and compassion for their experiences. That compassion for others can then be extended to ourselves. Whether you have a supportive friend, a group program, a therapist, or a weekly circle, allow yourself to vulnerably share your feelings and watch how those gremlins of anxiety, stress and uncertainty calm in the company of love and support.