7 signs you’re living in survival mode without even realizing it, according to psychology

Have you been feeling out of sorts and just not yourself lately? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s going on but something is definitely off.  

These feelings could be signs that you’re in ‘survival mode.’ 

Life’s big stresses, like job worries, financial troubles, or personal issues, can push your body into this protective fight-or-flight response. 

While it’s useful in short bursts, staying in survival mode too long can really wear you down.

When you don’t address it, it can seriously impact your health and happiness. That’s why it’s vital to notice it and break free as soon as you can. 

Today, we’re going to look at some clear signs that you might be living in survival mode without even realizing it. 

Recognizing these signs is the first step toward improving your situation. Let’s see which ones you might be experiencing.

1) You constantly feel tired

Picture this: You wake up tired, feel drained all day, and go to bed exhausted. No amount of sleep or coffee makes any difference.

Does this sound familiar?

Here’s the thing: if you’re experiencing this relentless tiredness, it might be more than just being tired. It could be fatigue. 

Rachael Ajmera, MS, RD, explains, “Prolonged stress can lead to chronic fatigue and disrupt your sleep, leaving you feeling perpetually low on energy.”

Research supports this, linking significant fatigue to ongoing stress.

If you’re always tired no matter how much you rest, it’s a sign you might be in survival mode, overwhelmed by stress.

2) You get irritated easily and lash out sometimes

My sister has always been a high achiever and an A student. But her great results came at a cost.

Around exam time, she’d become really stressed and easily irritated. She’d snap over the smallest things. 

Once the exams were over, she’d return to her usual self.

Does this hit home for you?

Maybe you’ve been snapping at loved ones more often lately, or small things bother you that usually wouldn’t.

Here’s why: when you’re constantly in survival mode, your body stays on high alert for threats, and your brain can’t process emotions like it normally would.

Health and psychology writer, Jocelyn Solis-Moreira, highlights stress as one of the possible reasons why you’re feeling more emotional these days.

Being irritable and quick to react emotionally can be a major sign that you’re living in survival mode, perhaps without even realizing it.

While you can’t eliminate stress, there are ways to manage it that can help you regain control over your emotions.

3) It all just feels like too much

Do you ever feel like everything is just too much? Like you can’t handle life anymore and just want to hide away?

Believe it or not: you don’t have to feel this way all of the time. Feeling overwhelmed like this is a sign you’re living in survival mode. 

This happens because of something called the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson found that a bit of stress helps you do better, but too much stress makes things worse and overwhelms you.

When you’re living in survival mode, your fight or flight response is constantly activated which is part of the reason you’re feeling so overwhelmed. 

By cutting down on your stress and moving away from constant fight-or-flight mode, you can start to feel less overwhelmed and more in control again. 

4) You’ve stopped taking care of yourself

Have you noticed that you’re always putting out fires and dealing with things that seem urgent?

Feeling incredibly busy like this leaves no time for really important things like taking care of yourself.

Activities like exercising, enjoying healthy meals, and making time for social interactions or just some alone time have probably fallen by the wayside. 

When you stop and think about it, you’ve completely stopped taking care of yourself.

Here’s the kicker: self-care is crucial for your health and well-being.

Clinical psychologist Monica Vermani explains that “quality self-care is linked to improved mental health, offering benefits like enhanced self-esteem and self-worth, increased optimism, a positive outlook on life, and lower levels of anxiety and depression.”

Take a moment to reflect on your habits over the last few months. 

Have you been making time for things like healthy meals, regular exercise, and moments to relax?

If the answer is no, then it’s another sign that you’re living in survival mode and it’s time to start prioritizing yourself before your well-being suffers even more.

5) You focus on the negatives

Do you find yourself thinking more about what could go wrong rather than what could go right? 

Like if you’re planning a trip, instead of getting excited about the adventure, you worry about the weather, the traffic, or something else going wrong.

There was a time when you easily saw the fun and positive sides of things, but lately, it feels like you’re just waiting for something to go wrong.

Focusing on the negatives like this is actually a survival tactic passed down from our ancestors. 

It helped them stay alert to dangers like wild animals or other threats.

Psychology writer Kendra Cherry puts it simply:

“Earlier in human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous, and negative threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more attuned to danger and who paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive.”

But today, we’re not dodging saber-toothed tigers, so this habit of expecting the worst isn’t as helpful. 

It can mess with your relationships, cloud your decisions, and make you misjudge people.

If you’re always spotting the negatives, it might mean you’re stuck in survival mode. 

Recognizing this can be your first step towards a lighter, more positive way of seeing things.

6) You find it hard to focus and concentrate

Did you know that when you’re stressed out, you’re 37% more likely to struggle with thinking clearly and remembering things?

Here’s the deal: stress messes with your ability to concentrate, remember stuff, and even learn new things.

When you’re constantly in survival mode, you’re under non-stop stress, which really takes a toll.

One study found that constantly stressed people had a harder time performing tasks efficiently and struggled to stay focused.

If you’re noticing that it’s getting tougher to focus, learn, and just handle your daily tasks, it could be a sign that you’re living in survival mode.

Breaking out of this cycle is tough but it will make your everyday life much smoother and your mind clearer, so it’s worth the effort, right? 

7) You’re struggling to sleep properly

Are you tossing and turning at night, finding it hard to get a good night’s sleep?

When you’re stuck in survival mode, your mind can keep running even when it’s time to rest, making it tough to settle down and sleep well. 

This constant stress doesn’t just make it hard to fall asleep, it can also wake you up in the middle of the night and make it hard to go back to sleep.

I’ve experienced this firsthand.

A few years ago, work and financial worries started to really stress me out. 

Things were tougher than usual, but I didn’t realize how stressed I was until I started having trouble sleeping. 

I’d never had any trouble sleeping before, so this was a huge red flag for me. It pushed me to figure out what was causing my stress. 

If you’re struggling to get enough rest, it could be a sign that you’re living in survival mode too constantly in a heightened state of stress. 

Finding ways to relax and wind down can help you sleep better and feel more refreshed each day.

The bottom line

Living in survival mode might be necessary for a short time to help you get through something but living in it longer term can steal your joy and overshadow the better parts of life. 

Recognizing the signs and stepping out of survival mode can dramatically improve your overall well-being. 

Reduce your stress and reclaim the happiness and balance you deserve. Life is waiting on the other side of survival mode.

Cat Harper

Cat is an experienced Sales and Enablement professional turned writer whose passions span from psychology and relationships to continuous self-improvement, lifelong learning and pushing back on societal expectations to forge a life she loves. An avid traveler and adventure sports enthusiast, in her downtime you'll find Cat snowboarding, motorcycling or working on her latest self-development project.

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