If you happen to live in a first world, Westernized city/state/country, chances are you may feel overwhelmed much of the time. Especially in major metropolitan areas in the U.S., the culture is focused on a lot of –ing words: doing more, working harder, feeling better, looking hotter.
Having grown up in this culture, I appreciate its drive and thrust towards progress, but it’s also a culture of near-unattainable ambitions and intense pressure. It can cause us to feel never enough—never successful enough, never hot enough, never healthy enough. It can cause us to build schedules and lives that help us to feel like we’re striving towards those expectations, even as we remain out of touch with what really brings us joy and fulfillment.
Here’s the thing: we may not crack under the weight of our own unmet expectations. We may be able to bear our schedules, finding structures, systems, and coping mechanisms to help us to “make it.” That is, we may find ourselves stepping into survival mode.
Survival mode may mean you are jetting from one obligation and responsibility to the next without ever stopping to think. It may mean you are so burdened by your schedule that you haven’t stopped to really connect with someone you know or love in days or even weeks. In may mean you are living from coffee to coffee during the weekdays, using social media to unwind on weeknights, and packing your schedule with even more obligations, tasks, and appointments on the weekends.
For me, survival mode has often resulted in relying on caffeine or sugar for cheap energy, spending too much time on social media, and neglecting relationships, especially with those I live with or know the most.
Survival mode feels like you are living just to make it. It might sound cliché, but it feels like you are just surviving, not thriving.
If you identify with any of the patterns of behavior or thought I’ve described, you might be in survival mode.
Of course, there are seasons of your life where you may not have a choice. Maybe you’re a new mom, or a grad student that also works FT, or you are dealing with a genuine crisis or major transition—the death of someone you love, a health condition, a major move. But I believe that many of us are in survival mode unnecessarily.
Here are 5 ways to step out of survival mode:
- Stop everything for 5 minutes. This might sound silly, but if you just stop everything you’re doing and thinking just to be for a few minutes, you might be surprised by the emotions or thoughts that will surface. Don’t go on a walk. Driving doesn’t count. Don’t talk to your roommate. Just sit down and stare at a wall/the sky/your lap. I’m serious. Let yourself take a break from doing for 5 minutes—that’s a twelfth of an hour and less than 1% of your day. You can do this. Pay attention to how you feel and what you’re thinking about, and you might be compelled to make some changes.
- Consider your diet/sleep. Like I said before, when we’re in survival mode, we often don’t get enough sleep, and eat too much sugar or drink too much caffeine. Consider your habits and how you’ve been feeling, and try to cut out sugar and prepare your own meals for a few days. Also, go to sleep. You don’t need to scroll through your IG feed for 30 minutes before going to bed.
- Get out of town. This weekend, I’m going to press my reset button. I’m going to drive 2+ hours just to get away—to think, reflect, and reprioritize. Taking a personal retreat at least once a year challenges you to re-evaluate, instead of just coasting along. It also means you’ll have to take a break from being productive for 24+ hours.
- List 25 things you’re thankful for, right now. Functioning in survival mode may not mean you are taking joy in the small things. There are always lots of reasons to be thankful—even when things are really tough. Can’t think of anything? Start with: the fact that you’re breathing.
- Pick up a passion or project you’ve always wanted to pursue. This might seem counterintuitive, but when you make room in your schedule for a new sport/art/practice that you may have always wanted to pursue but perceived as “impractical” or “pointless” you are stepping outside of survival mode. Some things in life are meant just to give us joy, nothing more.
When you step out of survival mode, chances are you may find a radical re-shifting of your priorities. You may find yourself surprised by the unhealthy thought patterns or emotional behaviors you’ve been engaging in. You may find yourself feeling more creative and more spiritual. You may even decide you want to pursue a path in life that’s totally unexpected.
Try it and surprise yourself.