People who are calm on the surface but in survival mode underneath usually display these 5 behaviors

Just the other day, on the June 19 episode of the Dear Felicity podcast, actor Keiko Agena shared that she was in survival mode when she played the part of Lane Kim—the best friend of main character Rory Gilmore played by Alexis Bledel—on the very popular show, Gilmore Girls (which ran from 2000-2007). 

“For myself, it was such a survival mode situation”, Agena said. 

“I didn’t think of it that way at the time. So now it’s just a mix of just having gratitude for having gone through that experience and having that experience,” she said on the podcast.

“I have to let go of the pressure that I put on myself to be the best version of who it is that I think that you love. Because I love her, too.”

But what is survival mode exactly?

Survival mode is being constantly on alert as a way to protect yourself from threats (either real or imagined). Being on high alert keeps you from fully relaxing and enjoying life, says the mental health team at Calm

“While being in this mode occasionally is normal—and can even be beneficial in short bursts—staying in survival mode for too long can be harmful.”

Even people who seem calm on the surface can be living in survival mode. How do you know? 

Here are five signs that people who are calm on the outside may actually be in survival mode on the inside.

It may even be you. 

1) You seem to make multi-tasking look so easy 

Multi-tasking and busyness is seen as some kind of badge of honor in our ever-hustling society. People who are in survival mode can be on a hamster wheel of work, chores, errands, hobbies, and the like as a way of running away from their emotions. 

Someone who is in survival mode will find it difficult to relax, says the staff at Health Hub

“They will struggle to calm themselves in any environment, still being hyper-focused on the stress that their brain is trying to deal with.”

Survival mode can stem from high levels of constant stress or burnout, adds the team at Charlie Health

“Our society often commends working hard versus acknowledging their danger.”

“You can do anything!”

This is the mantra we hear in modern society. 

“All the messages circulating in our society seem to converge on that same imperative. But this soon turns into: You must do everything,” says Ted Gioia from The Honest Broker

Philosopher Byung-Chul Han also says that while we like to brag about how much we’re able to multitask, it’s actually the opposite of progress. 

Multitasking is commonplace among wild animals, who are literally always in survival mode. 

“Wild animals must always be wary and cautious—danger is ever present—so they can never focus entirely on a single task. Their vigilance is constant, and covers the full spectrum of the world at hand. Our own lives are now much the same,” he writes. 

Gioia says that video games even help train youngsters in practicing this modern mindset, producing a “broad but flat mode of attention, which is similar to the vigilance of an animal.”

2) You also seem to get by with very little sleep

People who are in survival mode may boast that they don’t need or don’t get sufficient sleep and still manage to accomplish all that they do. 

I remember having a boss years ago who would often quip, “Sleep? What’s that?” It was her way of bragging about the busy life she had. 

People in survival mode probably have erratic sleep schedules, says Alexandra Hall from The Mind’s Journal

“Living in constant survival mode means your sleeping habits, sleeping patterns, and sleep schedule go for a toss. You might feel tired all day, but as soon as you lay down to go to sleep at night, sleep eludes you, and you feel wide awake.”

Often when you do finally fall asleep, you might not be able to sleep for long, or you wake up still feeling drained and exhausted. 

3) People might often see you “chilling” out with a glass of wine 

Because their stress levels are usually through the roof, people who are in survival mode might have a desire to feel numb, says the Rosenzweig Center for Rapid Recovery

“This is something that many people will begin to look for through alcohol or drug use.”

Similar to the above point, in an example from Accelerated Resolution Therapy, a woman named Janine couldn’t “turn off” when it was time to go to bed at night. 

Her mind spiraled with bottomless guilt, shame, and self-judgment. She would think about and self-evaluate all the things that had gone wrong during the day while at the same time, trying to figure out how she could do better the next day. 

“The only way to decompress was to pour herself a large glass of wine and pass out on the couch until it was time to go to bed, go to sleep, and do it all again the next day. She felt like she was barely keeping her head above water.”

4) You might seem like you’re put together…

People who are in survival mode probably look very put-together on the outside.

But they may actually be neglecting to take care of their basic needs, says Danielle Young, who is an Outpatient Supervisor at Child Guidance Resource Centers Staff (CGRC).

“Having trouble brushing your teeth? Exercising? Washing your face? Changing your sheets? These can all be signs you’re living in survival mode.”

5) To others, you look like you’re “living in the moment”

People in survival mode are inclined to be more impulsive

“You might spend excessively, eat more, or engage in activities you might not normally,” says Young.

Survival mode can affect our cognitive abilities and our decision-making skills, says the Truvaga team in their article, The Science Behind Survival Mode

“In this mode, we may become hyper-vigilant and inattentive to our own needs and safety. We may be more likely to make impulsive decisions instead of nuanced, well-calculated ones.”

So then what is the “mode d’emploi” to get out of survival mode?

Recognizing that you’re in survival mode to begin with is the first step towards change, says Chris Mosunic, PhD, RD, CDCES, MA

“Try writing down your thoughts and feelings to help you understand your situation better. Take a moment to reflect on what’s happening in your body, mind, and environment regularly and document your feelings.”

Self-compassion and self-forgiveness is also key. We all go through difficult times in our lives and being in survival mode is a response to the stress—it doesn’t signify personal failure so try not to see it that way. 

Mosunic says that self-care is also vital, especially when you’re in survival mode. “Add things that benefit your physical, mental, and emotional health into your daily routine. Self-care can be something as small as a five-minute breathing exercise or a short walk.”

And last but certainly not least, seek support.

Asking for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. 

“Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or professional for support,” says Mosunic. “Talking about your experiences can be incredibly relieving.”

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