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In our fast-paced and demanding world, getting caught up in the daily grind and losing sight of our well-being is easy.

Sometimes, without realising it, we slip into survival mode, a state of existence where we are merely getting by rather than thriving.

Survival mode can manifest in various aspects of our lives, and recognising the signs is the first step towards regaining control and rediscovering a fulfilling life.

In this article, I’ll explore five common signs that indicate you might be in survival mode, together with suggestions on breaking free.

What is Survival Mode?

Survival mode is when your autonomic nervous system has become so overwhelmed that it’s stuck in the flight, fight, freeze stress response.

Typically, when one stressful thing happens, our stress response gets triggered but quickly returns to homeostasis (baseline). However, if it’s continually activated, it doesn’t come down. It gets stuck on high alert.

I have written extensively about flight, fight, freeze previously, but I think it’s always worth revisiting.

Here’s how those three responses typically present:

Fight – anger, aggression, belligerence, shouting, nit-picking, micromanaging, defensiveness, passive aggressiveness.

Flight – a sudden need to get away from a person or situation, ringing in sick, cancelling plans at the last minute, avoidance.

Freeze – inability to move, wanting to stay home, numbing (Netflix binging, gaming, social media scrolling, binge eating, excessive alcohol consumption), difficulty finding energy.

In my experience, when people are in survival mode for a long time, ‘freeze’ is the typical stress response they get stuck in.

Common Symptoms & What to Do About Them


1. Constant Exhaustion

One of the tell-tale signs of survival mode is feeling perpetually exhausted, both physically and mentally. You find yourself running on empty, barely getting through each day.

Your sleep may be disrupted, and even when you rest, you wake up tired and unrefreshed. This exhaustion can result from chronic stress, overworking, neglecting self-care, or an imbalanced lifestyle.

What to do:

Start prioritising self-care by setting aside time for relaxation and rejuvenation. Focus on getting quality sleep, nourishing your body with healthy food, and engaging in activities that bring you joy and peace.

You don’t have to make massive life changes – in fact, I’d advise against it until your nervous system is more regulated. If you try to do too much too soon, your subconscious is likely to fight against it and push you further down the survival rabbit hole.

Instead, start small, for example:

  • Walk for 15 minutes a day
  • Eat one healthy meal a day
  • Listen to a favourite song
  • Do something you used to love but have lost interest in, even for just 10 minutes.

2. Neglected Relationships

Survival mode often leads to neglecting personal relationships as you struggle to meet your basic needs and fulfil your obligations.

You may withdraw from social activities, cancel plans, or become emotionally distant from loved ones. Your friendships and connections may begin to suffer, leaving you feeling isolated and alone.

What to do: 

Take stock of your relationships and identify areas where you can invest more time and effort. Schedule regular social activities or catch-ups with friends and loved ones.

If that feels too overwhelming, start by either calling a trusted friend or family member or arranging a low-key coffee with someone you feel safe being yourself with. ‘Safety’ is the keyword here.

Prioritise connection and nurture the relationships that bring you joy and support.

3. Overwhelm & Lack of Focus

When you’re in survival mode, you often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks and responsibilities on your plate. Your mind constantly races, and you struggle to concentrate or complete tasks efficiently.

That’s because when you’re in flight, fight, freeze, the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking, shuts down. It literally goes offline as the emotional part of your brain (the amygdala) takes over.

This state of overwhelm can lead to decreased productivity, increased mistakes, and a feeling of being stuck in a never-ending cycle.

What to do:

Break down your tasks into smaller, manageable steps. Prioritise your to-do list and focus on one task at a time.

Practice mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing or meditation to calm your mind and regain focus.

I like NSDR (non-sleep deep rest), which includes Yoga Nidra – nope, I’m not suggesting you twist yourself into a noodle. NSDR and Yoga Nidra are like guided meditation and are clinically proven to reduce stress and aid relaxation in as little as 10 minutes.

Here are two recordings that I highly recommend:

10 Minute Yoga Nidra | Reset Your Nervous System with Ally Boothroyd

10 Minute NSDR Protocol with Dr Andrew Huberman (Neuroscientist)

In addition, consider delegating or outsourcing some responsibilities to lighten your load. Remember, it’s better to do a few things well than many things poorly.

4. Emotional Numbness

Survival mode often takes a toll on your emotional well-being, leaving you feeling numb or detached from your emotions.

You may find it challenging to experience joy, enthusiasm, or even sadness. You’re merely going through the motions without truly connecting with your emotions and the world around you.

What to do:

Take time to reconnect with your emotions. Engage in activities that bring you joy, whether listening to music, engaging in creative pursuits, or spending time in nature.

Practice gratitude and mindfulness to cultivate a deeper appreciation for life’s small pleasures. Consider seeking support from a therapist or counsellor who can help you process and navigate your emotions.

5. Lack of Interest in Usual Hobbies

Survival mode often leaves little time or energy for pursuing our usual hobbies and interests, let alone personal growth and self-improvement. You may find yourself stuck in a rut, lacking motivation or inspiration.

Your dreams and aspirations take a backseat as you prioritise immediate survival. This lack of personal growth can lead to a sense of stagnation and dissatisfaction with life.

What to do: 

Carve out time for doing the things you love. Set goals that align with your passions and interests. Engage in activities that stimulate your mind and creativity. Read books, attend workshops, or take up a new hobby.

Surround yourself with like-minded individuals who inspire and motivate you. Remember, personal growth is a lifelong journey; even small steps can lead to significant changes over time.


Recognising the signs of being in survival mode is the first step towards reclaiming your life and moving from mere survival to genuine thriving.

Remember that self-care, nurturing relationships, regaining focus, pursuing personal growth, and reconnecting with your emotions is crucial for breaking free from survival mode.

By prioritising your well-being and taking small steps each day, you can create a life that is not just about surviving but truly thriving. Neuroscience teaches us that no matter how hard it feels, we will start to rewire our brains if we do one new thing (no matter how small) each day!

What Next?

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