Getting Out of "Survival Mode"

Modern life has its perks: Cell phones, Seamless, Netflix…We’re connected 24/7 and expected to be “on” at all times.  Work never technically ends, as most people continue to answer emails, etc. long after they leave the office. It has never been more difficult to stay afloat financially, and people frequently work multiple jobs to get by.  Most families have two working parents, often out of need--and these families often still struggle.

Average Americans may feel like they are constantly in “survival mode”: Just trying to make it through the day without having a major crisis or mental breakdown.  Exercise and nutrition may feel like luxuries that they simply do not have the financial and/or emotional resources to invest in.  

Yoni Freddhoff, physician and obesity expert, recently wrote an article entitled “Check Your Privilege Before Talking About Obesity and Personal Responsibility”, in which he slams those who “shame and blame” others for “failing” to take better care of their health.  He refers to what he calls “‘the most commonly overlooked privilege’: the privilege of life being settled enough to even consider personal responsibility-based healthy lifestyle change”.

Freddhoff recommends implementing policies that facilitate behavior change and to offer more support to those in need.  While these are absolutely valid suggestions for governmental and healthcare organizations, is there anything that you can do to improve your own sense of feeling “settled”, and minimize how much time you spend in “survival mode”, even if you don’t have a lot of resources?

One cheap and easy way to minimize stress is to reduce the number of routine decisions made each day.  What does that mean?  Basically, it refers to getting organized with your schedule (as much as possible), so that you know what’s coming, and minimizing the number of choices you have to make.

Not only does doing these things create more space for executive-level thinking and mindful health-related behaviors, it also reduces the physical experience of stress.  Even something as mundane as eating at different times each day can produce excess cortisol: When the body “expects” to be fed, then isn’t, it “feels” as though it’s starving--compelling you to eat as if you actually are.

My nine-year-old son recently came to me and said that he was “...SO stressed out”, because he had no control over his own life.  Many people might scoff at the idea of a kid experiencing “stress”, but it’s an inherently human response, at any age, to have a sense of “hyper-vigilance” when we cannot predict or choose what happens next.

To be fair, he has it more difficult than some kids, as his dad and I share custody and often switch the schedule around without giving him much warning.  So, to give him a greater sense of agency, I bought a huge dry-erase calendar to hang on the wall of his room.  I filled it in with who he’s with each night, who’s babysitting, which classes he has after school, when we travel for work, holidays, etc.  

This strategy can be incredibly useful for adults as well.  Obviously, it won’t eradicate difficult situations, but it can make them feel more manageable.

How many times have you been running late to work or an appointment, when shit--you remember that you forgot to pack your kids’ lunch, or mail something out, or bring something that you really needed?  Suddenly, a mildly stressful situation turns into a disaster, leaving you frazzled, angry, and sick with tension.  

It’s amazing how much it helps to map out your day ahead of time and set reminders for yourself to keep you on track, so you can avoid racing out the door like a chicken with your head cut off!

Have you ever tried picking out paint colors?  There are literally hundreds of colors that look like “white”.  Did thinking about whether the “bone” or the “ivory” or the “milk” shade was the best make your head want to explode?  

Now imagine going through life doing that in every moment…Sounds overwhelming, right?  It is; which is why investing a little time in creating routine can pay off BIG TIME.

You might be thinking to yourself, “My schedule changes every day. This is totally unrealistic.” Fair point.  The older we get, the more we realize that monotony is a “luxury”; the majority of us couldn’t keep the exact same schedule every day if we wanted to, and surprises come up no matter how well we plan in advance.  

But if we can identify any semblance of “normalcy” and build ritual around that, it’s helpful.  And let’s not forget the part about minimizing our choices where possible. For example:

  • Wake-up and go to sleep as close to the same times every day--even on weekends.  When your sleeping routine gets “out of whack” over the weekend, Monday feels miserable, which sets the tone for a long, stressful week.  
  • Eat as close to the same times every day, and even try to eat the same foods for at least one meal per day.  Breakfast is usually the easiest, because you can grab something from home.
  • Have regular appointments with someone, like a client or therapist?  Try to make them on the same day and time every week.
  • Put your entire schedule in calendar, preferably digital, so you can sync reminders to your smart phone and email.
  • Carry a small journal to write notes about daily errands and creative ideas.

In our previous blog post, “All or Nothing Pleasure”, author Jamie Wolff discusses the tendency to take a very “black/white”, “yes/no” approach to behavior, especially when it comes to food.  We either rigidly adhere to a “rule” that doesn’t allow us to partake in something or give ourselves the go-ahead to “let loose”, aka, binge.

Both approaches ignore internal signals of desire and satiety, which is indicative of our innate tendency to be efficient and energy-conserving. As mentioned earlier, spur of the moment decisions--even if 'mindful'--take up precious bandwidth that we never seem to have enough of to begin with.

Instead of “automating” important decisions that seriously impact our physical and emotional health, I suggest that we preemptively streamline choices that are more routine and “micro-level”. 

Want to minimize your stress AND free-up some time and mental energy for more sensual pleasure?  Do you want to get out of “survival mode” occasionally and start actually enjoying life?  It might sound ironic, but maybe being a little more “boring” and “monotonous” could be the solution.