Life brings with it a certain amount of stress. After all, when something is worth having, it can often take a little bit of "fighting for". As adults we are less protected by "I didn't know", or "I haven't learned that yet" or even "My mum/dad(etc) will bail me out" - we have the power of making choices, and at the same time, need to stand by the consequences of those actions.
A level of challenge is also welcomed. You might know yourself that when something is "too easy" a win can feel less sweet. So as humans, we are often walking that fine line between "about right and watch me grow from this"...and "stop the world I want to get off!" For many, especially if we haven't learned to manage our capacity for stress - we might be veering towards the latter.
Busy-ness as a "badge of honour"
Unfortunately, living in a constant state of "just treading water" stress is damaging not only to our own health, but to our relationships. Physiologically "stress" is a warning light - it prepares us to survive - whether that is through running away, or fighting the threat. It is NOT a "badge of honour", it is not a state in which one can thrive. Research showed a change from the cocktails and golf course posts on social media in the early part of 2010 - 2015 as a mark of success, to those from 2015-2019 expressing "busy-ness" as an indicator of how well one was doing - and, if you take a moment to reflect on it yourself - what is your first emotion when you have a moment to yourself...it's often "guilt...I need to be doing something!" My guest speaker, Reverend Mandy Marriott reminded us in one of my lockdown webinars last year "We are so busy being 'human doings', we forget that we thrive as 'human beings'."
The problem with "living in survival mode"
As a "positive psychologist", I advocate the notion of thriving...of flourishing beyond ordinary. To me "survival", while certainly admirable, is "managing" it's not living...and to return to the physiological outcomes of remaining within a stressful state for too long - it is likely to have repercussions on your health. While you may think "I can handle this low level stress" - and as resilient beings, we probably can if it stays that way and then disperses (as threats in the wild used to do), we do not always bank on other environmental factors compounding our experience...and when stress is "man made" - it is less likely to disappear...unless we make it do so!
A "spa day" or a "drink after work" (admittedly not available to us at the time of writing - I'm in "Tier 4") may soothe you temporarily, but will not necessarily produce the mindset change needed to "unmake" that pressure.
Why relationships can falter when we are in survival mode
Survival mode by its very nature is selfish...you are trying to survive. And survival mode in 2021 is not the same as it was when the fight or flight stress response evolved. We are not responding to physical threats - the rustle of the trees in the wild; but rather emotional and psychological ones as well - competition, a need for achievement, a need for validation - threats that we see that our environment can satiate...often because our perception of our environment caused the feeling of lack in the first instance!
"The fittest" is no longer the strongest, but can be the richest, prettiest, most decorated - and we compare ourselves to others to judge our level, and when we start to use them as a benchmark for our success, we will struggle to win. Of course "they" will always be "better" - because you are comparing yourself to someone who is already ahead...for THEM. (You are much better off focusing on what will put you ahead for you.)
This is when a "congratulations" on a friend's social media post may be tainted with "That should be me...what can I post to beat that?" and when even a kind response may be driven not through genuine compassion (although you may like it to be) - but through ego...what about ME? eg. you may feel put out if you hear about something in a public forum rather than being told separately (regardless of the reasons as to why this may be so); an offer of help may come out as martyrdom "Oh, I'll just have to cope"; or in a work situation, we may be so afraid of disapproval, we will take on responsibility even if it is not ours to take eg - the teacher who rather than enlisting help, does the work for the student for fear that her classes grade point score will go down.
If the above resonates with you, how do you make the changes you want?
Firstly, if the above resonates - well done, because you had admitted a vulnerability. As soon as we are able to do that, we have begun to loosen our grip on "covering up" our weaknesses. (Survival mode often pushes us to hide any Achilles heels for fear of others exploiting them...and the more we work to "cover up" the less we are growing ourselves!)
Next, ask yourself - is the threat I'm feeling actually real? For example, is it actually that X "hates me" - what EVIDENCE is there to support that notion?
If you can demonstrate - with evidence - that the threat you feel is real, then your next question is, why would I choose to live in this way? Even with the hardest question eg: I think my husband is cheating on me - I have evidence to show this is the case - survival mode will simply keep you in their denial, or creating machinations to try and "trap" or "trick" him into staying - NOT always because for some reason you feel that this is your lot but rather sometimes it can be because admitting "failure" is, in your mind - far far worse. (Never mind that it's NOT just YOUR responsibility!)
Can you see where the problem is?
You need to learn to build up your sense of value for you, within you, and energised through you. This will move you from feeling all you can do is react, to knowing not only is there a better life for you, but that you are going to get it!
Then your mind-set will shift from simply reacting, to knowing what is in your power and what you can influence. This is one of the most powerful shifts of all.
And then - you will come to the realisation that even if, in this case, your influence didn't turn things in the way you might have hoped - you still come away knowing that you have that power of agency - of self efficacy.
5 tips to get out of survival mode:
1. Make sure your challenges are achievable with the resources you have
The first thing to remember is, no-one expects you to get things right first time...even as an adult, but with that, having an unrealistic view of your capabilities can have repercussions for you (depression) and for others (frustration). While I will always advocate pushing yourself, trying something new - and indeed getting help should you need it...there are professionals in most fields to whom you can turn. Your friends/family/work network may be great supporters, even fundraisers and cheerleaders, but be mindful of what their own limits are. A manageable level of stress can be exhilarating - therefore, challenges are great and help is even better - but make sure your support team is deployed where they are most effective....and be honest with your self appraisal, and what you are prepared to do to achieve. Whatever your limits, if they are authentic, they will always be right!
2. Try to appraise a situation by recognising what you can effect and what you can't and directing your efforts there
If, for example, a loved one is struggling - if you cannot help them yourself - what could you do to help make things better? This can be simply telling them - you're there; or offering practical support; or perhaps acting as a buffer to the people or things s/he isn't able to face right now. Worry is all-consuming, and does little except exacerbate the negative vibe around you!
3. Ask yourself when you take something on - IS THIS REALLY MY RESPONSIBILITY?
You cannot save people from themselves - and often trying to do so is a great way to avoid dealing with the areas of lack in your own life. If it is within your power, you can signpost them, and be there should they need a cheerleader, but if you are trying to do more, ask yourself - what is it, really (deep down), that you are trying to achieve? (and work on that!)
4. BE the person you want others to see
While this is a common "law of attraction" approach, there is a psychological basis for this. If you can identify the behaviours that you want that "ideal you" to have - you have a blueprint for how you can choose to behave. Social learning theory will suggest that it's easier to do something when you know what it is you are trying to do!
In my own case:
-Rather than focusing on losing weight, I decided instead that I would simply be the sort of person who exercises daily, and eats (what suits me) a diet lower in carbs. I notice now that not only has it toned up my body, but that I am feeling good in general too.
-Rather than thinking about what I didn't have, I would instead be grateful daily for everything I do. Again, I notice how this practice changed my immediate reactions - I am more able to pause - even if something has pushed my emotional buttons, and choose my response.
-Rather than adding to residual insecurities - I came off social media (save a professional presence), and not only has it given me extra time (away from "mindless scrolling") to read or create, or simply chill(!), but I also concentrate on deeper interactions and friendships off the platform which fill me with energy and love.
(You could say I'm now the person who builds a healthy body and mind, who chooses compassion, and generally feels she's doing ok...and is rather grateful for it.) If you met me 4 years ago, I was angry - quick to fly off the handle, overweight, wouldn't walk let alone run...and while generally successful, never really appreciated it! I currently have never felt better - and life hasn't stopped throwing curveballs!
5. Cherish the positive influences that surround you
Good friends, supportive colleagues, opportunities that find you...it's not just about appreciating them through gratitude, but maintaining and growing them through your actions. Perhaps you need to arrange a "date night", or drop a line saying "I'm thinking of you", or simply work on your own self growth so that you are the best you can be when called to action (if you haven't already volunteered it yourself). I used to think that I needed to "be the best" (and often that made me look to "destroy" others)...but now my focus is on making sure "I'm a good bet"...if I say "yes", I can be relied on; if I make a claim it's substantiated; if I'm happy for you I'm going to be sharing that vibe for all it's worth!!
You do best for others, by looking after yourself. Self care is not what makes us selfish - it is what ensures we are at our peak for others...it is survival mode that turns us inwards. No matter how small, do one thing to nurture yourself today, and soon you, and likely your corner of the world, will flourish in the way you desire.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt
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