Survival Mode: 4 Things to do When Times Get Rough

Life is good. There is lots of room for travel, for friends, for Vitamin D and sunshine, for self-exploration and contemplation and laughter and dessert. This is Growth Mode – a period of expansion and stretching out into myself, and I’m grateful for it because I know times don’t always feel like this. There are the grow-y, stretch-y, expand-y times, and on the opposite end, there are the constrict-y, just-get-through-the-day, working-hard-to-breathe times. Neither can exist without the other, and it’s important that we welcome them both.

At the other end of Growth Mode lies Survival Mode, in which things feel so difficult that we lose touch with all of our higher aspirations on Maslow’s hierarchy, and find ourselves instead struggling to attend to our most basic needs. Survival Mode pops up when work stress becomes untenable, when relationships fall apart, when health crises occur, when families fight and break into pieces. When we find ourselves there, taking care of the basics becomes essential. Here’s what to attend to, when Survival Mode inevitably kicks in.

Prioritize Rest

I cannot stress enough the importance of rest during periods of mental, physical, and emotional stress. If you cannot do anything else recommended here, rest is the thing to do. It can be hard sometimes to remember this in periods of stress, because our culture has a tendency to shame us for resting, and encourages us to get back out there as quickly as possible. Sometimes we think we’ll become more depressed if we let ourselves rest, or that rest will force us to think about difficult emotional things that we are trying to distract ourselves from. Both are fair arguments; however, if we do not allow ourselves time to sleep or relax, our bodies will be unable to do the repair work necessary to keep us well in periods of stress, and we will be headed for a larger breakdown. Survival Mode is the time to take that nap, take a day off, go to bed early, and say no to the functions you don’t have to or want to attend. In times of stress, less is more, and rest is king.

Feed and Water Yourself

Second to rest is supporting our bodies with food and water. While this seems obvious, it’s amazing how easily we forget to nourish ourselves in difficult times. Many clients that I work with chastise themselves for eating “unhealthily” during periods of extreme stress, to which I say, “Hogwash!” (I don’t really say hogwash. But like, I might as well say hogwash). Do the best you can with the nourishing. Or not. What’s important is that you feed yourself. And, if you eat emotionally, guess what – that can be an a-ok strategy. Give yourself permission to not shame yourself during difficult times, and to gently move through the difficult process. If you want to, do it with donuts. Just don’t forget to eat and drink.

Ask For Support, and Take It When It’s Offered

For many, many years, I was a do-it-all-on-my-own type person. This felt important so that I never bothered anyone and proved to myself that I was capable of all of the things and in need of no one else. The problem with this, of course, was that it didn’t allow people that cared about me to get close to me in meaningful ways, and guess what? I’m not capable of all of the things all by myself. Shocker.

People that care about you want to help you in difficult moments. They want to take you out for coffee, give you a comfortable place to rest and cry, be a listening ear, and/or offer myriad other types of support. I promise you that this is true, and that you should experiment with this theory by (gasp!) asking for help. And, if and when help is offered to you, I heartily endorse taking it. Take everything you can. An appreciative thank you is plenty in return.

Return to Places of Stability

Finally, identify those people, places, and things in your life that offer comfort and stability, and seek those out aggressively. If your best friend is warm and generous, get yourself immediately over to her house. If the ocean is calling to you with its tranquil lapping, go sit on the sand for the day. And if it’s your bed, your dog, a cup of tea and some chocolate chip cookies – make room for all of these things without calling it an “indulgence.” It’s self-care, it’s appropriate, and you don’t have to do anything to earn it.

When we find ourselves in Survival Mode, we have an opportunity to return to the basics, and remind ourselves that we have all the tools we need to weather any difficult situation. We can return to our foundational skills, and take care of ourselves until the sun comes out again.


Originally posted on my blog, Common Humanity, at Psych To read more, visit

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