Trauma: How to Move Beyond Survival Mode

Posted on January 8th, 2015
Posted in Mental Health

Truly traumatic events put our brains and bodies in survival mode. It is an automatic response to something traumatic and life-threatening. The problem is that many people who have experienced trauma continue to live in survival mode. They may think they have overcome the trauma, but the brain is still operating on that base level of surviving. This is especially true of someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. If you have experienced a trauma, how do you move past survival mode and learn to embrace life again?

Trauma and Survival Mode

Whatever the traumatic event is, such as sexual assault, the loss of a loved one, childhood abuse, and the experiences of combat or anything else terrible and troubling, survival mode is normal. The normal state of the brain is what experts call learning mode. You and your brain are out to explore, learn about and enjoy the world around you. When you experience a traumatic event, what happens is your brain shifts into survival mode. This means your brain is on the defensive and your responses to stimuli and stresses are negative instead of mostly positive as they are in learning mode.

Someone who has been through trauma often stays in at least a partial form of this survival mode long after the event. This is one of the reasons why childhood abuse is so damaging. An abused child learns to live in this mode, and it has far-reaching consequences. Without proper treatment, a child may never learn to enjoy life as an adult.

Getting Past Survival Mode 

If you have experienced something traumatic and you think you have dealt with it emotionally, ask yourself a few questions. Are you reacting to normal situations with fear? Are you always worried about what might happen next? Do triggers often remind you of your traumatic experience? Do you isolate from others to avoid being hurt? If you answer yes to these, you may be at least partially in survival mode. You are not embracing life openly and are living in fear and doubt, defensive about what might come your way. Here are some ways to get out of that mode:

  • Surround yourself with people. Your instincts will be to stay away from people. They can hurt you, after all. Isolation will only make your situation worse. Connect with people you trust and reach out to make new friends. Consider joining a support group for people who have experienced similar trauma. Social connection is a positive way to make a change in your life.
  • Manage your physical health. Trauma and survival mode both take a toll on your physical health. To feel better, take care of your body. Get plenty of sleep every night. Exercise every day. Eat well and avoid drugs and alcohol. Manage stress with meditation, yoga or other relaxation techniques.
  • Create a routine. Trauma and guarding against it makes you feel out of control. Ground yourself with a daily routine. When you have goals to accomplish, make lists and tackle them one small, manageable piece at a time. Find time for enjoyable activities like reading, going to the movies, cooking or doing whatever you enjoy.
  • Get professional help. If you feel unhappy, scared and unable to get over your traumatic experience no matter how hard you try, a therapist can help you. Talk to your doctor for advice and a good referral.

Traumatic experiences are terrible and life-altering. However, if you have been traumatized it doesn’t mean that you have to live in fear for the rest of your life. It is possible to face the fear and learn to live a happy life again.

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