Beyond Survival Mode

Sometimes, it feels like making it through the day is just about the best we can do. We may be met with hardships, illnesses, losses, wounds, or even just the bustle of everyday obligations that take up so much space, that we can't seem to contact that sense of happiness and contentment that we all ravenously seek. This survival lens can also be tinted by unrealistic expectations for how we think our lives should look. Everywhere on the internet, we find stellar examples of what a "good life" should look like. This can be a great source of inspiration, of course. However, when we find ourselves in times of challenge, these one-dimensional representations become the feeding grounds for suffering and discontentment. On the surface, it appears as though everyone else has it together, which may trigger feelings of desolation and shame. 

As far away as relief may seem in these moments, it is possible for most of us to shift gears from survival to thriving mode. Barring major life crisis and acute mental illness, the average person does have the ability to transform their stress experience. As a yogi and health psychologist, I am confident in declaring that this shift begins with the breath. Recent studies find that basic human emotions (i.e., anger, fear, sadness, and happiness) are characterized by unique cardiorespiratory patterns [1]. Happiness is commonly expressed as a stable increase in heart rate, paired with even breaths, while sadness is expressed as uneven breathing, and anger is expressed as a dramatic heart-rate increase. Most of the time, these cardiorespiratory changes happen without our conscious awareness or control. However, when we tune into the body in times of “survival,” we can override these communications taking place between the head, heart, and breath to say: “it’s all good.” In these moments, pausing to take slower, deeper, and more even breaths can bring us back to a state of emotional stability. When we consciously change our breathing patterns, we turn down the signals for arousal and our body sends feedback to the brain that promotes balance.

Think of your body as your friend. Often times, the negative effects of stress in the body are exacerbated by the thoughts that accompany it. Imagine you feel your heart rate increase at the thought of an upcoming job evaluation and immediately think “My heart is pounding like crazy. I can't do this, I’m so stressed out!” But, what would happen if you thought instead “My heart is fired up. I’m so pumped for this challenge, I’m ready to go!” When we are met with obstacles, we typically interpret them either as a threat or a challenge [2]. Most of the time, we unconsciously interpret the cardiorespiratory changes that naturally occur in times of stress as a sign that we are in trouble. However, research finds that when people label their body’s response to stress as something that is functional in preparing them to better deal with the challenge ahead, they buffer themselves from the physiologically damaging effects of stress in the body [3].

Finally, survival mode is often accompanied by a sense of hurriedness or rushing. But, in these frantic moments, it can be so powerful to just take 5 minutes to stop and do nothing, just soak in as much sensory information as you can. This is a basic mindfulness technique and it can be a real game changer! Set your timer for 5 minutes. Close your eyes and try to notice all of the immediate sounds, smells, and sensations that come into your awareness. Don't be worried if you find yourself thinking again, just acknowledge the thought and bring your attention back to your senses. I love practicing this with my clients for the first time, because I often find this remarkable reaction after just 5 minutes of doing nothing: sheer awe! “Oh my gosh! Did you hear the birds? They sounded so beautiful and surreal!” It’s amazing to see how much of your attention is typically consumed by your thoughts, especially in times of stress. By tuning in to your physical experience, you savor the richness of your environment; you unlock the sources of natural healing that are available to you in your own body and your relationship to the living world [4].  

I'm glad to know we have all survived thus far. It's a big deal! But, I want to see what it looks like when we step beyond surviving, into thriving. 


 

1.     Rainville, P., Bechara, A., Naqvi, N., & Damasio, A. R. (2006). Basic emotions are associated with distinct patterns of cardiorespiratory activity. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 61, 5-18.

2.     Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kelsey, R. M., & Leitten, C. L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 248-260.

3.     Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 417-422.

4.     Howell, A. J., Dopko, R. L., Passmore, H. A., & Buro, K. (2011). Nature connectedness: Associations with well-being and mindfulness. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 166-171.