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My alarm clock sounds and I wake up feeling drained. I can’t remember what’s on my schedule for the day and I can barely focus on any of my tasks. I go through the motions and feel unmotivated in everything I do. This was the mental state of survival mode that I lived in for an entire year. 

During different points in life, many people experience periods of stress. Sometimes, it’s related to work, relationships, or financial difficulties. While people may be able to work through the stress, it can also be debilitating. If you are feeling stuck and unable to change your circumstances, you may be experiencing what’s often referred to as “survival mode.”

It can be hard to know when you’re in survival mode. If you have a mental illness such as anxiety or depression, it can be even more challenging. But, survival mode doesn’t have to become your new normal. 

Survival mode is primarily an instinctive response activated by our brain’s threat detection system called the amygdala. When we take on too much stress, either from external factors or internal ones, our amygdala goes into hyper-drive initiating the body’s fight-or-flight response

According to the Depression Project, there are various signs that you may be in survival mode. Some things to look out for include letting go of healthy habits such as eating, cleaning, or exercising. Others may include being emotionally distant, breaking down over small things, and feeling exhausted all of the time. 

While the body’s flight-or-fight response is meant to protect us, it’s not a healthy state to maintain. For me, survival mode involved emotional irritability, exhaustion, and a loss of healthy habits such as eating and sleeping. 

As someone with high-functioning depression, it can be difficult to know when I’m in survival mode. Last year, I got good grades, ran on a D1 team, and helped manage a newspaper, but these demands took up so much of my time that I lost myself in the process.

During this time, I wasn’t able to manage my emotions. Every day I woke up with negative thoughts that seemed to play on a loop in my head. I was so detached from myself that I did whatever was necessary to get through my day. 

Soon enough, my ability to function became more difficult. I was going through the motions to accomplish my daily tasks without proper sleep or nutrition. I lacked boundaries with school and work. I was staying up into the late hours of the night to finish school assignments and felt exhaustion taking over. 

I also used unhealthy coping mechanisms to get short-term relief from my stress. For me, that looked like overeating to suppress negative emotions and self-harming to feel a sense of control. In the long run, these habits made my anxiety and depression worse. 

I finally began to heal and get out of survival mode once I graduated college. I prioritized connection, rest, and exercise. Over the summer, I spent time with friends and family and allowed myself to truly be present. I took long breaks from my phone and laptop to recharge and started a consistent and fun exercise routine. Not long after, I began to see myself improve. I began feeling more rested and stopped using unhealthy coping mechanisms to get through the day.  

Unfortunately, not everyone can recover from survival mode by taking time off like I did after graduation. According to Psychology Today, some strategies to escape survival mode include connecting to yourself, connecting to others, exercising, being kind to yourself, acknowledging that you are stressed, and reaching out for help. 

A first good step to recovering from survival mode is recognizing that you are in it. Knowing that you are stressed beyond your limits is good because it means you can change. It’s also important that you are kind to yourself during this time because self-shame and deprivation only make healing harder. 

Specifically, it’s important that you don’t shame yourself for using unhealthy coping mechanisms because they may be helping you stay grounded and safe. If you get mad at yourself or feel guilty for doing things that help you get through the day, it will only be harder to get out of survival mode.

It can also be beneficial to try and set aside time for yourself every day. Even if your schedule only allows for an hour, it could help you prioritize yourself and the things you enjoy. If you like walking, you could use that time to get outside. If you want to meet up with a friend for lunch or dinner, make that a priority over another task one day a week. Small changes and personal acts of self-care will add up and help break up the monotony you may be feeling. 

It’s also okay to ask for help if you are having trouble changing your habits or need to talk to someone. I found that talking to my therapist helped me make realistic goals and lifted the shame I felt from being in survival mode. Sometimes, you can’t give yourself the support you need and may need to lean on others to start healing.

Today, I still have moments when I begin to slip. With a stressful grad school schedule and workload, it can be easy to fall back on old habits. I have to work hard to hold myself accountable and prioritize my health. Be kind and compassionate to yourself and remember that it’s scary to change, but harder to stay stuck in survival mode. 

Works Cited 

FS, Dhabhar. “A Hassle a Day May Keep the Pathogens Away: The Fight-or-Flight Stress Response and the Augmentation of Immune Function.” Integrative and Comparative Biology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 13 July 2009,

“Signs You May Be in ‘Depression Survival Mode.’” The Depression Project, The Depression Project, 15 Jan. 2023,

“Why Survival Mode Isn’t the Best Way to Live.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 30 June 2020,


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