Mind Your Fibromyalgia Podcast

Living in Survival Mode

September 18, 2022 Olga Pinkston MD Season 1 Episode 34
Mind Your Fibromyalgia Podcast
Living in Survival Mode
Show Notes Transcript

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Episode 34 - Living in Survival Mode
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Many patients tell me they are not living but merely existing or surviving. In this episode, I discuss how many live in a survival mode that is not a short-lived scenario but an actual long-term way of living. When your nervous system is frequently or constantly turned up or activated, it affects not just your nervous system, mind, and body but how you adapt to daily living. This episode examines the survival mode of living and how to recognize and change it.

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EPISODE 34 Living in Survival Mode

Welcome back to Mind Your fibro podcast, episode 34

When we talk about the survival mode, we often refer to your nervous system's fight or flight or freeze responses, trying to survive an attack or a threat. This mode involves the release of stress hormones and activating our stress-response systems, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system. It is designed for us to be able to run away or fight off threats like tigers or lions or freeze and play dead. It is a protective mechanism to keep us from danger or threat, with the goal of survival. Our mind and body become focused on combating danger.

Today I want to examine another way of living in a survival mode that is not a short-lived scenario but an actual long-term way of living. Many patients tell me they are not living but merely existing or surviving. You see, when your nervous system is frequently or constantly turned up, and your sympathetic nervous system is in a constant fight or flight or freeze mode, it affects not just your nervous system, mind, and body but how you adapt to daily living. Our nervous system was designed to be activated to fight or flee for short periods of time, not months to years. No one expects to fight a tiger or run away from a lion and keep on doing it. But often, this is how it feels, like we are running away or fighting off threats with no end at sight, feeling activated, with detectable and frequent stress and tension. We may feel frequent anger, anxiety, or panic. The world is no longer safe but unfriendly and dangerous. The autonomic nervous system is telling us to protect ourselves. Defensive behaviors, manifested in various ways, keep recurring and become habitual. When the sympathetic branch cannot avoid the threat or is simply overwhelmed by stimuli – the autonomic nervous system shuts the body down: self-preservation through energy conservation. We become frozen, avoidant, and immobilized as in our oldest, reptilian method of defense. We shut down, avoid, withdraw – and it does not just apply to our nervous system, but maybe in our way of living. Many adopt the two ways of surviving in their daily lives – they either feel like they are constantly running away or fighting, trying to survive by activating and mobilizing all their resources, or they shut down, lay low, and do nothing, feeling immobilized and avoiding activities. You feel overwhelmed, overstimulated, and in a threat, or the opposite, do nothing. We often see it in the pushing and crashing behaviors, feeling overwhelmed or anxious, doing things that need to be done, just to stop, and withdraw from activities, spending time in bed, avoiding everything and everyone.

Many people do not recognize this pattern of living. But there are signs that you are maybe living in a survival mode. 

When you're in survival mode, you're just trying to get through the day.

There is not much planning. It is often just about how to get through the next 24 hours. You may live in the Monday-Friday mode, barely surviving the week and crashing on the weekend. When you're stuck in survival mode, you may feel like you'll never dig yourself out of the hole of things that accumulate. You may tend to procrastinate, extend deadlines, and feel you are constantly lacking resources. This often leads to a feeling of urgency. Everything becomes urgent, and you feel easily overwhelmed, living in a constant crisis mode. The stress of feeling behind leads you to be reactive, not proactive. You can't plan, dream or have long-term goals. You may bounce from reaction to reaction. Your goal may be to avoid a terrible day. It may be to avoid a terrible day in terms of a consequence of your actions or avoid terrible pain from too much action. But it does not matter what you do; it feels risky – it will cost too much – in terms of pain, energy, or poor or insufficient sleep. Everything feels exaggerated; everything matters way too much. There's no margin for error.

Our survival brain reacts impulsively to maintain self-preservation; it tells us that using executive functioning skills, your higher functioning brain or the brain's cortex will take too much time to process the information and that safety cannot be guaranteed. The survival brain is trying to keep us alive, but it can make everything feel much more difficult.

So living this way gradually leads to a lack of focus and brain fog. You may have trouble finishing one activity in a focused manner or the way you used to do it. Your memory changes; it's hard to remember things when your brain is constantly looking for protection, and the brain is constantly multitasking, resulting in not doing anything well. You feel exhausted and fatigued – both your mind and body are using way too much energy to do basic things, and even when you rest or are in bed, your activated state uses energy. Emotional reactivity – is often a symptom of burnout or survival mode – you may be more upset at things you would not normally react to, feeling more grumpy, mean, or tearful. You may also be more impulsive – hard to control impulses like cravings, urges leading to overeating, overdrinking or overspending, and engaging in activities that buffer your emotions, like watching too much TV or social media. Passive activities like TV watching or social media can be activities of immobilization, withdrawal from life, or avoidance. These activities feel safer and less taxing but also can become a form of dependency as they numb your negative thinking and pain. You may also find yourself forgetting or avoiding doing basic needs – like basic self-care, like brushing teeth, taking medications, fixing healthy meals, or exercising. If your brain thinks you are in danger, do you think it would focus on grooming or long-term goals? Or course not! It is actively trying to survive. 

SO WHAT IS THE OPPOSITE OF SURVIVAL LIVING? I think it would be a life that is intentional, mindful, and full of vitality. When you think about yourself and recognize that you describe yourself as full of compassion, curiosity, clarity, creativity, calmness, confidence, courage, and connectedness. 

The survival brain is trying to keep us alive, but your higher brain is in charge of creating a life on purpose, with plans, goals, and dreams.

Living with intention also means constantly communicating with yourself, deciding what's working (and what's not), and making small daily adjustments.

When we are living in the opposite of survival, we are actually living in the state of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for relaxation. Your parasympathetic nervous system is a network of nerves that relaxes your body after periods of stress or danger. It also helps run life-sustaining processes, like digestion, during times when you feel safe and relaxed.

The ventral or front side of the Vagus nerve responds to cues of safety in our environment and interactions. It supports feelings of physical safety and being safely emotionally connected to others in our social environment. In this state, we can feel safe, calm, connected, and engaged. We are able to meet the demands of daily living, engage with life, and go with the flow. The goal is not to avoid the fight or flight or freeze responses but be able to recognize these states and pull out of them, recognize our nervous system goes out of regulation and being pulled into a survival response, and be able to return to regulation, not get stuck in it. This ability to move between states of the nervous system is a sign of well-being and resilience. The distress from living or being stuck in the survival mode is what we are trying to avoid.

So I want to tell you, this type of living in a survival mode does not have to be your life. 

You are in charge of your life, and there are ways to calm your nervous system down and pull you out of being stuck... But you must first recognize that you have probably practiced this way of living for a long, long time. It was your default way of living for a reason, something triggered your nervous system to be activated, but after living this way for a long time, it is the only way your brain and your body know how to live. What you practice makes it stronger. 

Awareness is 1st step toward change. Paying attention to how you are living and wanting to change is the 1st step. Start being aware.

 I will examine the available tools for exploring your nervous system and steps of regulation in future episodes and educational workshops I plan to host in September 2022. Please be on the lookout for the signup, and if you are not on my email list, please sign up for my newsletter to get updates on upcoming training and podcast episodes. My website is rheumcoach.com. 

Workshop: www.rheumcoach.com/workshop


 Thank you for listening; I will talk to you soon!