In March 2020 my family and I went into self-isolation when my partner showed signs of a new virus, Covid-19. Over the following months, we like everyone else went in and out of lockdowns. We changed our habits in terms of wearing masks, staying distant from others and how we shop/go out. I also took on lockdown learning. We stopped everything that wasn’t essential and went into survival mode.
What is survival mode?
When we are worried, stressed or anxious our bodies notice and our brain responds by turning off our thinking brain and switching on our survival brain. This means that the ability to make rational decisions, empathise with others, engage in self-reflection and recall information is reduced.
Using our survival brain is important when faced with an emergency, but it’s not meant for long periods of time. If we stay in survival mode too long it can have a negative impact on our well-being.
Fight, flight and freeze
When we’re in survival mode we rely on the methods of fight, flight and freeze to deal with the stress. During the pandemic, many of us found our behaviours and responses affected by these modes. Perhaps you recognise some of these behaviours?
Fight mode: You want to fight back or be active in protecting yourself e.g. arguing with loved ones more. You might feel frustrated, finding your tolerance levels are lower. You might want to be proactive in stocking up to feed the family or planning your finances.
Flight mode: You want to get away from the situation/avoid it. You might feel overwhelmed and need to leave the room when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. You might avoid the news and need time alone.
Freeze mode: You may find you are not sure what to do, unsure of yourself or your decisions. Anxious thoughts may be overwhelming and you might feel numb. People in freeze mode take longer to respond and seem not to care about a situation.
I know that I have flitted between all three of these modes over the last 18 months or so! During lockdown, I bribed the older kids with screen time and prioritised calling clients when the baby slept. I tried to control what was in my control...and a few things that weren't! Keeping on top of the snack situation and the tidying up plus a few hours of work was all I could manage.
After a year or so the kids went back to school. Suddenly I had space. I worked hard for a few weeks. Then came the summer holidays and although it's not the same as lockdown, I still had no real routine.
I kept telling myself it would be ok in September. I would have more time. I would get back to normal. But, it didn't. I found myself still stuck. Feeling exhausted and unable to focus. In writing this I think I was/am in freeze mode.
I needed help so I turned to my business network. Telling them what was going on helped me for two big reasons:
- They reminded me that we must transition between tasks. We cannot go straight from one into the other at 100 miles an hour. For normal, day to day tasks you need at least 20 minutes between to let your brain refocus and relax.
- Ann told me (and a few others) that we'd been in survival mode, but now it was time to get out.
This last thought really resonated with me. When Covid arrived we had to prioritise. Our own health and safety, and that of those around us.
Time to move on
For the majority of us in the UK, we are emerging from this survival mode. The schools are back, working is easier and we are (hopefully) through the worst of it. So how do we transition out of the highly stressful survival mode?
The answer is that none of us really know because, just as we went into the pandemic, none of us has done this before.
What I would say is that we need to move mindfully. Many of us are still tired, overwhelmed and unfocused - still in fight, flight or freeze mode. Remember that when we are using our survival brain, our thinking brain is off so we may not respond to things in the same way. It’s not your fault and it’s important that you look after yourself - physically and mentally.
5 steps to moving out of survival mode
- Acknowledge that you could be in survival mode. If you have been in it for a long period of time, this could be a slower process than you think. Take time to recognise if and when your behaviours are being influenced by your survival brain.
- Take care of yourself and reduce the stress and anxiety in your life. This will help turn your thinking brain back on. There is no one thing that I would recommend, you will know what helps you destress.
- Ask for help if you need it. It's easy to isolate yourself and think that you're alone in all of this. You're not. Talk to people in real life or search for others' stories. If you don't need help right now, perhaps offer support to someone else.
- Create a new plan of action that takes into account where you are now, what you've gone through and what you are able to do. This might not be anything big, and it might ‘just’ be thinking about the plan/routine. That is still taking action.
- Forgive yourself for not achieving the goals you set yourself or for 'not achieving more'. Being in survival mode means that you are only focused on the things right in front of you. You can't do more - that's ok. If you're feeling frustrated, that's normal but remember it isn't your fault.