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CBT Tips for Overcoming Survival Mode

A person in a state of survival mode, feeling overwhelmed and anxious
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Do you frequently experience overwhelming feelings, a sense of disconnection, and a persistent state of being on edge? If so, you might be living in what’s often referred to as “survival mode.”

This enduring state of heightened stress response not only wreaks havoc on your overall well-being and daily functioning but also has the potential to leave you feeling unmotivated, devoid of meaning, and stuck in a continuous cycle of numbness and disconnect. Learning tools to break free from survival mode is necessary in order to regain a sense of purpose and motivation.

In this article, we’ll explore what survival mode is, its symptoms, and the impact on relationships and social life. More importantly, we’ll provide effective strategies for overcoming this challenging state and creating meaning and purpose to help you find inner peace.

What is Survival Mode?

Survival mode is a state of constant stress response, often resulting from trauma or chronic stress, which manifests in various physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. The nervous system becomes hyperactive, and the survival mode affect can have a significant impact on an individual’s overall well-being and daily functioning.

The healing process begins by acknowledging that you are living in survival mode. Identifying the signs of survival mode, such as persistent anxiety, unremitting depression, and difficulty in completing everyday tasks, is the first step towards regaining control of your life.

With appropriate coping strategies and self-care practices, individuals can release energy trapped in survival mode and regain control of their lives.

The Stress Response

The stress response is the body’s physiological and psychological reaction to a perceived threat or stressor. It involves the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare the body for a fight-or-flight response. This response can manifest as:

  • An increase in heart rate
  • Elevation in blood pressure
  • Heightened alertness
  • Alterations in mood and behavior.

However, when the stress response becomes chronic, it can lead to a state of hyperarousal, where the body is constantly on alert and unable to relax, resulting in survival mode.

Chronic Stress vs. Short-term Stress: CPTSD VS. PTSD

Chronic stress, such as Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), often results from sustained exposure to traumatic events, including communal trauma, and may induce survival mode during prolonged periods. On the other hand, short-term stress, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), stems from a single traumatic event and may not have the same lasting impact.

Understanding the distinctions between chronic and short-term stress can shed light on potential triggers of survival mode and aid in developing suitable coping strategies for stressful situations.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Dorsal vagal shutdown is a physiological response that occurs during extreme stress or trauma. It involves the inhibition or shutdown of the dorsal vagal complex, a part of the autonomic nervous system. This response can lead to symptoms such as dissociation, numbness, and social alienation. Dorsal vagal shutdown serves to protect the body from further harm, but it can also contribute to the symptoms of survival mode.

Identifying Symptoms of Survival Mode

A person feeling overwhelmed and anxious, with a nervous system in a state of survival modeAddressing and overcoming survival mode starts with identifying its somatic, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. Somatic symptoms include physical manifestations of stress, such as fatigue, muscle tension, and sleep disturbances.

Emotional symptoms may involve feelings of overwhelm, emotional numbness, and detachment. Cognitive symptoms can encompass difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and negative thought patterns. By pinpointing these symptoms, individuals can better understand their current state and take appropriate action to address it.

Somatic Symptoms

Somatic symptoms refer to physical symptoms that are experienced in the body but do not have an identifiable medical cause. These symptoms can include:

  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Headaches
  • Other bodily sensations

It is common to observe a correlation between somatic symptoms and psychological or emotional distress, such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Addressing somatic symptoms may involve:

  • Relaxation techniques
  • Mindfulness
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Maintaining healthy habits like getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and engaging in regular exercise.

Emotional Symptoms

Emotional symptoms refer to the psychological and behavioral indicators of a person’s emotional state, which can include:

  • feelings of sadness
  • anxiety
  • anger
  • irritability
  • mood swings
  • changes in appetite or sleep patterns.

In survival mode, emotional symptoms can manifest as:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Social withdrawal
  • Reduced interest in activities

Seeking professional help is essential if you are enduring persistent emotional symptoms affecting your daily life.

Cognitive Symptoms

Cognitive symptoms refer to alterations in an individual’s thought processes, memory, and capacity to process information. In survival mode, cognitive symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Memory issues
  • Disorientation
  • Impaired judgment

To cope with these symptoms, individuals can practice mindfulness techniques, engage in cognitive-behavioral therapy, and develop healthy habits to support mental well-being.

Social Alienation in Survival Mode

A person feeling isolated and disconnected from the world

Survival mode can lead to social alienation, a feeling of disconnection or isolation from society and others. This includes interpersonal, intrapersonal, and existential isolation, which can further exacerbate the symptoms and impact of survival mode.

Overcoming survival mode and regaining a sense of connection and belonging requires addressing social alienation.

Interpersonal Isolation

Interpersonal isolation refers to a sense of disconnection from others, including family, friends, and colleagues. It may result in feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

Potential causes of interpersonal isolation can range from:

  • a lack of social skills
  • fear of rejection
  • a lack of self-confidence
  • a traumatic experience
  • a lack of meaningful relationships
  • a lack of social support.

Addressing interpersonal isolation may involve cultivating healthy habits, engaging in mindfulness practices, and establishing a sense of purpose in one’s life.

Intrapersonal Isolation

Intrapersonal isolation is the sensation of being disconnected from oneself, which can result in feelings of low self-esteem, self-doubt, and a lack of purpose. The implications of intrapersonal isolation on mental health and well-being can include depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Addressing intrapersonal isolation may involve clarifying values, practicing Tonglen meditation, engaging in interpersonal mindfulness (T-Group), and practicing self-compassion meditations.

Existential Isolation

Existential isolation is the perception of being disconnected from the world and one’s place in it. It can be associated with feelings of hopelessness, despair, and a lack of meaning. Factors contributing to existential isolation may include feeling disconnected from society, lacking a sense of purpose or meaning in life, and feeling as if life is not progressing in the desired direction.

Addressing existential isolation may involve:

  • Clarifying values
  • Practicing tonglen meditation
  • Engaging in interpersonal mindfulness (T-Group)
  • Practicing self-compassion meditations
  • Engaging in behavioral experiments.

Impact on Relationships and Social Life

A person neglecting personal connections and losing sight of prioritiesSurvival mode can negatively impact relationships and social life by causing neglect of personal connections, loss of priorities, and lack of motivation. As a result, individuals may experience increased conflict and disconnection from loved ones, further contributing to emotional distress and social isolation.

Maintaining healthy relationships and overall well-being necessitates the recognition and addressing of basic needs and their impacts.

Neglecting Personal Connections

Neglecting personal connections can lead to further isolation and emotional distress. When an individual is in survival mode, they may focus solely on their own needs and survival, neglecting the needs of their relationships. This can lead to a lack of communication, increased conflict, and ultimately, a feeling of disconnection from loved ones.

Addressing this issue requires prioritizing self-care, seeking support from others, and setting boundaries to maintain healthy relationships.

Losing Sight of Priorities

Losing sight of priorities can result in decreased productivity and increased stress. In survival mode, individuals may struggle to focus on what is truly important, leading to feelings of being overwhelmed and difficulty making progress towards goals.

Re-establishing priorities and focusing on what truly matters can be achieved by clarifying values, practicing mindfulness, and engaging in self-compassion meditations.

Lacking of Motivation

When individuals find themselves in a state of survival mode, they frequently experience a notable lack of motivation. This emotional state can manifest in various ways, often resulting in procrastination, delays in completing tasks, and a tendency to avoid addressing important responsibilities. The overwhelming focus on immediate survival instincts can overshadow the drive to accomplish goals or fulfill obligations, which can, in turn, hinder personal and professional progress. Take the procrastination quiz to find out if your procrastination is problematic.

In survival mode, individuals may experience:

  • Prioritizing their own needs and survival over those of their relationships
  • Decreased focus on essential tasks
  • Reduced communication
  • A decrease in energy to pursue objectives
  • Procrastination 

Clarifying values, practicing tonglen meditation, engaging in interpersonal mindfulness (T-Group), and practicing self-compassion meditations could help address this issue.

Strategies for Overcoming Survival Mode

A person lacking motivation and struggling to do tasks

Overcoming survival mode is possible by implementing strategies such as:

  • Clarifying values
  • Practicing meditation
  • Engaging in interpersonal mindfulness
  • Cultivating self-compassion
  • Stimulating the vagus nerve
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Conducting behavioral experiments

These strategies can not only alleviate the symptoms of survival mode, but also enhance overall well-being and promote a more balanced and fulfilling life.

Clarifying Values

Clarifying values helps to realign priorities and focus on what truly matters. By understanding and adhering to their beliefs and principles, individuals can lead a more purposeful and rewarding life.

Identifying values can also aid in concentrating on what is of utmost importance and prioritizing life accordingly. This process involves self-reflection, evaluation of values, passions, and goals, and taking action to pursue them.

Tonglen Meditation

Tonglen meditation is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that involves visualizing the suffering of others and sending them love, compassion, and healing energy. This meditation fosters compassion and empathy for oneself and others, which can be beneficial in overcoming survival mode.

To practice tonglen meditation, begin by sitting in a relaxed position and focusing on your breath. Visualize the suffering of others and offer them love, compassion, and healing.

Interpersonal Mindfulness (T-Group)

A group of individuals practicing Interpersonal Mindfulness in a T-Group setting, learning to recognize and navigate out of survival modeInterpersonal Mindfulness (T-Group) is a type of group therapy that emphasizes the promotion of open communication and emotional connection. This mindfulness extends beyond individual introspection; it’s a collective, shared practice of mutual awareness. It fosters a deep, neurological connection among participants, allowing them to tune into each other’s emotions and, in turn, engage in both self-regulation and co-regulation.

Engaging in a T-Group can help individuals enhance their communication skills, foster stronger relationships, and gain a deeper understanding of themselves and others.

Self-Compassion Meditations

A person practicing deep breathing and emotional health to overcome survival modeSelf-compassion meditations promote self-kindness and resilience in the face of stress. These meditations involve cultivating a sense of kindness, understanding, and acceptance towards oneself, acknowledging one’s own suffering, and offering words of kindness and support.

Practicing self-compassion meditations can lead to a reduction in self-criticism, an increase in self-acceptance, and an improvement in overall well-being.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Vagus nerve stimulation is an effective strategy for moving beyond survival mode. It regulates the body’s stress response. Practices like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and even simple actions like gargling, humming, shaking, singing, sighing, and body movements activate the vagus nerve. Kirtan, a form of devotional singing, is another effective technique. These exercises promote relaxation, resilience, and emotional balance, helping individuals transcend survival mode and regain self-awareness and control.

Gratitude Practice

Gratitude can be likened to the act of stopping to smell the flowers. It’s about slowing down, taking a moment, and appreciating the beauty and value that each flower holds, irrespective of its type. It’s a conscious pause to recognize the subtle wonders in life that we might otherwise overlook or take for granted. Gratitude invites us to notice the intricate details and unique qualities that each “flower” in our life offers, encouraging us to cherish the simple joys that can often escape our attention. It’s about intentionally committing to moving towards values of acceptance and compassion.

Behavioral Experiments

Behavioral experiments involve testing limiting beliefs, schemas, and assumptions to challenge unhelpful thought patterns. Through these experiments, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and consequently, develop more beneficial ways of thinking and behavior by applying critical thinking.

Examples of behavioral experiments may include:

  • Evaluating the accuracy of limiting self-talk
  • Assessing the accuracy of assumptions about other people
  • Analyzing the accuracy of assumptions about the world

Coping Mechanisms in Survival Mode

Coping mechanisms such as derealization, depersonalization, and dissociation are psychological defense mechanisms that individuals use in response to chronic stress or trauma. These mechanisms can temporarily help individuals distance themselves from overwhelming emotions or situations, but they can also have negative consequences if used excessively or inappropriately.


Description: Derealization is a coping mechanism where an individual perceives the external world as unreal, dreamlike, or distorted. This sense of detachment places them in autopilot mode, where everything seems distant or artificial.

Function: Derealization can serve as a protective mechanism by reducing the emotional impact of a distressing situation, pushing individuals into autopilot to navigate through traumatic experiences with less emotional involvement.

Consequences: While derealization can offer temporary relief, it can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection from reality. To break free from autopilot, individuals must slow down, notice their surroundings, and reconnect with their emotions by clarifying their values and finding meaning in their experiences.


Description: Depersonalization involves feeling detached from one’s own body or self. Individuals experiencing depersonalization may perceive themselves as an outside observer of their thoughts, feelings, or actions, essentially entering autopilot mode.

Function: Depersonalization can provide a sense of emotional distance from one’s own distressing experiences or memories, allowing them to endure situations in autopilot mode that would otherwise be too overwhelming.

Consequences: Similar to derealization, depersonalization can lead to feelings of alienation and a reduced sense of self. To exit autopilot, individuals must slow down, reconnect with their sense of self, and clarify their values to find meaning in their experiences.


Description: Dissociation is a broader coping mechanism that encompasses various ways in which individuals disconnect from their thoughts, emotions, sensations, or memories, effectively entering autopilot mode. This can range from mild experiences of “spacing out” to severe forms like Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

Function: Dissociation often serves as a protective mechanism to compartmentalize distressing experiences and emotions, placing individuals in autopilot mode to continue functioning in the face of trauma or extreme stress.

Consequences: While dissociation can be adaptive in the short term, it can hinder emotional processing and contribute to memory gaps. To break free from autopilot, individuals must engage in self-awareness, connect with their emotions, and clarify their values to find meaning in their experiences.

In each of these coping mechanisms, the autopilot mode serves as a temporary shield against overwhelming emotions. However, to escape autopilot and regain a sense of control, individuals must slow down, reconnect with themselves, and clarify their values to find deeper meaning in their experiences and live with more gratitude and equilibrium.

Developing Healthy Habits

Developing healthy habits, such as regular exercise, proper sleep, and a balanced diet, can help maintain physical and mental well-being. These habits can reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases, improve immune function, elevate mood, and increase energy levels.

Engaging in activities that promote emotional health, such as deep breathing exercises, spending time with friends and family, and participating in social activities, can further enhance overall well-being.

Practicing Mindfulness and Gratitude

A person developing healthy habits, practicing mindfulness and creating meaning to prevent relapse into survival mode

Practicing mindfulness techniques can improve focus, reduce stress, and promote emotional regulation. Mindfulness involves intentionally bringing one’s attention to the present moment without judgment or attachment, allowing individuals to become more aware of their thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them.

Incorporating mindfulness practices into daily life, such as mindful breathing, body scans, and mindful movement, can help individuals stay present in the moment and cope with stress more effectively.

Creating Meaning

Creating meaning involves finding purpose and engaging in activities that align with one’s values and passions. This process can improve overall well-being and life satisfaction by imparting a sense of purpose and fulfillment. When we are in survival mode and on autopilot, we’re constantly running towards pleasure and away from pain, delaying consequences and seeking immediate gratification. This escapism and constant pursuit often lead to feelings of existential angst and meaninglessness.

Clarifying our values provides a way out of this cycle, offering us a compass to navigate regardless of whether it feels good or bad. Only by freeing ourselves from the cycle of evading pain and chasing pleasure can life begin to feel meaningful. It means that every decision we make is in alignment with our values; we’re choosing meaning over mere survival and prioritizing the greater good over immediate gratification.

This self-discipline allows us to break free from survival mode. Practices such as tonglen meditation, T Groups, vagus nerve stimulation, self-compassion meditation, and other exercises can help you reach a place where your thoughts and feelings have less influence on your actions, empowering you to break free from survival mode and live according to your deeply held values.

Overcoming Survival Mode

If you’re struggling with being in survival mode and yearn to break free, transitioning from escapism to a motivated, purposeful mindset, consider booking a free consultation session at the Bay Area CBT Center. As leading psychologists in San Francisco, we specialize in evidence-based treatments and cognitive behavioral therapy. We provide individual therapy sessions, group therapy and workshops, and online therapy, all aimed at helping individuals escape survival mode and embrace a more meaningful life. Our team of highly skilled therapists is dedicated to providing the highest quality of counseling in San Francisco, CA.

Frequently Asked Questions

Evidence-based therapy involves interventions that are scientifically proven to be effective for particular issues. In this approach, a strong partnership based on trust and collaboration is formed between you and your therapist. Within this supportive and unbiased environment, you can freely express yourself without fear of judgment. Over a series of sessions, you and your therapist will work together to address obstacles and set goals aimed at personal growth and fulfillment. This method ensures that the techniques and strategies used are not only supportive but also empirically validated to help you achieve your therapeutic goals.

The Bay Area CBT Center provides therapy services for everyone, from children to adults, and welcomes individuals, couples, and groups. We help with various concerns like anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues, and behavior challenges. We value diversity and cultural differences, offering personalized and culturally sensitive care to each client.

Studies show that the bond between you and your therapist, known as the therapeutic alliance, is a key factor in treatment success. This alliance is characterized by the strength of your relationship and how well you both agree on treatment goals. Research indicates that individuals with a solid therapeutic alliance experience better treatment outcomes including greater productivity at work, more satisfying relationships, improved stress management, and decreased engagement in risky behaviors.

You can expect a 15-30 minute phone call with our care coordinator, who is extensively trained in ensuring the perfect match for you. During this conversation, our matching expert will collaborate with you to understand your therapy needs, preferences, and scheduling availability. This discussion builds upon the information you provided during sign-up and offers an opportunity for you to address any personal questions or concerns you may have about therapy or our services at The Bay Area CBT Center. Following your conversation, we’ll pair you with the therapist who best aligns with your needs, goals, and preferences.

At your matching appointment, we will match you with a therapist specifically chosen for you and schedule your first session. Depending on your availability, you can expect to meet your therapist anywhere from one day to a week after this appointment.

Our approach to therapy includes a flexible hybrid model, blending both online and face-to-face sessions. This option is perfect for clients situated close to our clinics in the Bay Area who prefer the flexibility of choosing between virtual consultations or meeting their therapist in person. Our aim with hybrid care is to ensure every client is matched with the ideal therapist and therapy environment, be it from the convenience of your own home or in one of our clinics.

At the Bay Area CBT Center, we accept PPO insurance plans that allow you to use out-of-network providers. This means if your insurance plan is a PPO and it includes mental health benefits, you could get back some or all of the money you pay for our services, depending on what your insurance company allows. When you see one of our therapists, they’ll give you a superbill. You can send this superbill to your insurance company to ask for reimbursement. If you’re not sure if your insurance covers services from providers not in their network, it’s a good idea to give them a call and check.

You may be eligible to have 60-80% of your costs covered by out-of-network benefits.

Also, if you have an FSA (Flexible Spending Account), you can usually use it to pay for individual counseling sessions. It’s wise to double-check with your FSA provider or talk to your accountant to make sure that counseling sessions are considered an allowed expense.

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