Incremental Change

December 12, 2021

So there I was, sat in an AA meeting watching this pretty blond getting her umpteenth 24-hour sober medallion. I had been going to meetings for a couple of months at that point and was only beginning to get it. She was frustrated with herself, and was begging god for help to stay sober, I giggled to myself about that, god, he did not exist and if he did, he was a complete ass I thought to myself. After the meeting, I went for coffee with this guy who had been an MP with the RCAF (Royal Canadian Armed Forces) and from this fella I learned a new definition for god.

I unloaded on this guy about my feelings about god and, how I was really struggling with the idea of god as a higher power. He looked me straight in the eye and kind of really pissed me off. His comments though not unkindly said, blew the lid off something that I had been struggling with for more than a dozen years. As a young 10 or 11-year-old boy, a neighborhood kid who had a reputation as being a clean cut do as he was told kid had said to me in regards to both my brother and myself that we were out of control and had no discipline.  That statement then had been meaningless to us both; my brother and I, plus, what right had he, or anyone for that matter, to sit in judgement as to how we lived our lives? In retrospect though, our entire family had been out of control and it had been noted by the entire neighborhood.

Not unsurprisingly, this behavior in me had been easily noted by this former military cop who said to me in no uncertain terms, that I needed to start living my life with GOD (Good Ordered Discipline). My immediate reaction should have been to tell this guy to go fuck himself, but the thing of it was, I knew he was right, and that pissed me off even more. I owe this guy a great deal of gratitude because by learning about this serious short coming in my behaviours , all of a sudden AA’s program and it’s twelve steps made a whole lot more sense to me. 

 It was at this point that I began to understand that I had spent the previous 25 years in survival mode, and that out of necessity anything went. Under “normal” circumstances, there should have been absolutely no reason for a 13-year-old kid to be 50 or more kilometers from home on his bike simply so that I could avoid any chance of running in to the kids or my brother who bullied me. During the winter, I would cut class and ride the subway till it closed then ride the all night buses simply to avoid being at home. A lot of the trouble I got myself in to during these adventures was a direct result of the rage that I was filled with because of what took place at home; I lashed out at every opportunity. I had opportunities to join gangs but I thought they were bullshit and the people who did were weaklings without an ounce of self-respect or the balls to say no.

 The following 9 points describe what it is like to live in survival mode.

  1. You are doing everything you can just to get through the day.
  2. You have focused all your energy on the next 24 hours. You are unable to even think about the next day, never mind next week.
  3. You can only consider one task at a time. Everything is URGENT!
  4. You feel utterly alone and helpless. You are the only one who do the job right, and you can must do it yourself.
  5. You push others away without thinking because you do not have time or energy to deal with them.
  6. You do not eat properly, sleep is a foreign concept, and your stress level is so high you feel like you will snap at any moment.
  7. You rush around like crazy but never get caught up.
  8. You cannot remember the last time you laughed and enjoyed a day.
  9. All you can do is react to each situation that arises. 

The following points can be of enormous help

Be willing to let go. Pare life down to the basics. Remind yourself that We survived, and at that time, that was the goal. Start with what you can do right now, and when things start to come together, slowly begin to add to it, one-step at a time.

 Put succinctly, survival mode involves adaptive physiological changes in our body that help us respond to the stressors that we are faced with. When we experience stress, a sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses occur in our body that allow us to respond by preparing them to fight, flight, or freeze (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018).

When we are “surviving” too long, we can feel the effects it has on us. In fact, research shows that chronic stress and chronic exposure to stress hormones can even be harmful (Hormone Health Network, 2018). At times, our body may overreact to stressors that we experience. What if our body is responding to a situation as if it is a “bear” when it is in fact a “rabbit”?

A frequent stress response and overexposure to stress-response hormones can take a toll on the body, take a toll on our emotional health, impact our relationships, lead to a number of medical issues, and increase risk for anxiety and depression (Harvard, 2018; Hormone Health Network, 2018). As with all things, too much of this good thing, or our body working to protect us and help us survive, can actually become a bad thing.

Connecting with ourselves and others can help us step out of survival mode and into the present.
Source: Simon Migaj/Unsplash

So, what does this mean, and how do we help ourselves cope with stress and decrease the amount of time that we are in survival mode or going through the motions? In response to stress, it can be tempting to stay in survival mode, riding the waves of stress like a roller coaster and white knuckling our way through life. There are a few things that may help us on our journeys:


  1. Connect with yourself: Survival mode often involves disconnection, and at times disassociation. Connection is key in learning how to live instead of survive. Some ways to do this is to ask yourself, “What do I need?” When in survival mode, we often overlook our needs and our emotions to keep “getting by.” What is your body telling you? Are you tired? Have you eaten today? What are your emotions telling you? Are you scared, angry, or sad? Take a moment to connect with yourself and listen to your needs, so that you can respond the way that you want to, versus the way that you may feel compelled to.
  2. Connect with others: Seek support from a friend, loved one, therapist, or safe people who can help you gain connection to yourself and others. Gaining connection with others helps, us to gain perspective, ground ourselves, and learn to live instead of survive.
  3. Exercise: Exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, is widely recognized as an effective way to help the body cope with stress and the hormones that are involved in the body’s stress response.
  4. Be kind to yourself: Do not shame yourself! Remember that you did not ask to be stuck in this cycle. Our bodies are masters at adapting, and sometimes they can adapt to the unhealthy environment instead of adapting in the way that is most helpful for us. When our bodies are stuck in a cycle of survival mode, it is important to know that it takes time to break this cycle.

As an important note in this conversation, although many would like to stop the cycle of survival mode, it may not always be that easy. For individuals who have dealt with chronic stress, like those who have a history of complex trauma, survival mode may be an automatic response to stressors, even when it is not needed. There is beauty in our body’s ability to adapt, but if a body is flooded with constant stress or trauma, a stress response may become its normal state. Rewiring and supporting the nervous system in getting out of this cycle can take time especially if it was wired this way from a young age.

Regardless of what has caused us to struggle with being in survival mode, or how long we have been surviving this way, we can all learn to help our bodies and minds determine what the “bears” are in our lives, what the “rabbits” are, and learn how to live instead of survive.

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