3 Ways to Overcome your Instinctual Survival Mind

We are all by-products of our past. Instinctual behaviour patterns are genetically hardwired into us at a very young age. The psychological imprints guide our interactions through our lives.

You either walk into your story and own your truth, or you live outside of your story, hustling for your worthiness”- . BRENÉ BROWN

I have always believed that when faced with adversity or challenge in life I can always think my way around any problem. That thinking then allows me to take action and get things done.

However, in recent times, I feel that instinctual ability has escaped me.

 With the arrival of a pandemic all daily habits and routines went out the window. I found myself in a never ending place of limbo. Days during lockdown were spent subconsciously agonising over how long it will last and what will come next.

There was this paralysing discomfort that made me feel trapped.

As days moved into months I started to feel an uneasy sense of disorientation. It was like being stuck on a desert island not knowing when or if I would be rescued.

What was happening to me?

Why was my driving this intolerance for discomfort?

More importantly, what could I do to liberate myself from my fears and frustrations that were undermining my ability to take reasonable action?

I needed to gain greater insight into the areas of my world I tend to turn away from when things get tough.

Learning to hustle to survive

For most of my life, I’ve hustled. And most of that hustle has come down to one thing: survival.

From a very young age I learnt very quickly my survival depended on always being hyper vigilant for unexpected eventualities in life.

Survival instincts are conditioned into us from a very young age. Unfortunately, this mode of operating is a coping mechanism resulting from enduring some form trauma in our lives.

My sense of safety was disrupted in a number of ways through early childhood:

•          An unstable environment

•          Separation from parents for extended periods of time

•          Verbal abuse

•          Domestic violence

•          Neglect and poverty

To combat the feeling of threat from the environment I needed to keep a constant vigil to the world around me. This 24/7 ongoing uncertainty and discomfort had consequences.

In those early years the amplified levels of insecurity and stress triggered feelings of anxiety and fear.

Research suggests this is not uncommon.  “Uncertainty about a possible future threat disrupts our ability to avoid it or to mitigate its negative impact, and thus results in anxiety.”

I witnessed this play out many times when I was young. The consequences still haunt me today.

 I remember always getting anxious when my dad returned home drunk. Not knowing what he would do was troubling. He either went to bed to sleep it off or, more often than not, there was an aggressive argument with mum that always threatened to spill over into violence.

The consequences of childhood trauma

When feeling threated by the environment around us it’s natural to look for ways to protect ourselves from the uneasiness of the situation.

Experiencing trauma in childhood can result in a severe and long-lasting effect. When not resolved, a sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for further trauma.

Experiences or traumas in childhood program us to react in a certain way to keep us safe.

This inborn instinct has far reaching implications to how we:

•          behave

•          perform

•          handle adversity

•          make decision

•          Weather the passage of time.

The body’s primitive survival mode was only meant to fire up to protect us during times of threat. ‘We can’t function in survival mode indefinitely. It is a mechanism that’s designed to get us through an emergency’.

When the associated body’s fight-or-flight response is active 24/7 it becomes overly sensitive to the environment.

As a result, there is a constant feeling of edginess, fear, and tension.

Craving a sense of safety

Neuroscience studies have shown that when our brain perceives threats in our social environment – to our status or autonomy, for example – it reacts in the exact same way it does to physical threats: It triggers the “fight or flight” stress response.

This is how I have lived most of my life. Not feeling safe. The impact of not resolving my childhood traumas has profoundly impacted my behavioural approach to dealing with situations in my adult years.

My sense of survival purposely made me limit my exposure to the world around me. To me this represented control. I never let myself be vulnerable in anyway. I lived on my own island.

This survival mode of operating served me well through many transition phases in life. I hustled to always stay ahead of the pack.

However, what I have found, especially during these times of global turbulence, this survival instinct of dealing with things makes little sense when solutions are beyond comprehension.

Overanalyzing the problem was only making things worse. Living in this survival mode on a daily basis was exerting an ever increasing burden on my mind, body and spirit over time.

My hyper-analytic mindset was causing me to excessively worry, and obsessively ruminate.

This constant trying to think my way out of the crisis directed my attention, over and over again, to my thoughts and feelings that then fuelled my anxiety.

I got caught up in a negative, downward spiral that left me feeling less than adequate.

Letting go of the overthinking mind

Survival mode amps up stress and anxiety by placing a toxic focus on ourselves.

In survival mode we develop tunnel vision.

Unfortunately, our inability to see the big picture severely limits us when we’re in this frame of mind.

Getting out of “survival mode” starts with asking what changes need to happen to feel more secure.

I needed to start by learning how to let go of my overthinking mind.

Instead of overthinking, I needed to get comfortable experiencing my emotions as they surfaced. This meant spending time focusing on a path of self-discovery, whereby I direct my mind towards finding calm, and resilience.

Turn outwards, not inwards

What I typically found with my growing anxiety was an inability to have a greater perspective and connection to what was happening to the world around me.

In my mind this pandemic was only affecting me. I struggled to understand others point of view.

Research suggests this is not uncommon. Ego-centric thinking and behaviours become the norm when individuals struggle with increased anxious states of mind.

Rather than seeking connection and help I withdrew inwards focusing solely on my own situation. This transitional crisis had caused me to reject the very thing that could help. I needed to reach out and connect with others.

To help me with my struggle and expand my thinking I choose guidance and support from a therapist who had helped me greatly before.

Rewiring the mind through self-discovery

We all have default reactions to situations in life when we are challenge. We are all products of our past. We are genetically hardwired with certain instinctual behaviour patterns that are influenced by developmental experiences given by our primary caregivers.

From exploring my problematic situation it was apparent I was defaulting to preferred response patterns to guide my interactions with the environment around me.

As petrol fuels an engine, the cognitive and emotional patterns that develop to satisfy our motivational needs fuel our behaviour.

The interface of our motivational needs with the surrounding environment experiences define who we become.

The mental schemas that are formed guide our relationships and interactions. They help us make sense of the world around us. They determine how we react in our daily lives.

Each transition in life represents a fight or flight survival decision that ultimately helped shaped my path forward. However, that course of action is not now serving me well.

I needed to begin the rewiring process by better understanding how my own mind works.

Overthinking the problem was causing a sharp increase in my levels of anxiety.

Once I uncovered what deepens or depletes my levels of resilience, the more I could adopt resilience-building practices into my day.

Uncovering resilience building practices

As Mark Manson said: “Being resilient doesn’t mean feeling good all the time—it means you’re okay with feeling bad sometimes”.

Here are 3 simple things you can do to reduce the levels of stress, build resilience and take back control of your mindset and wellbeing.

1. Identify when you are in survival mode

If we can recognise when our behaviours are influenced by our survival mode, then we will be in a better position to take back control and reduce stress levels.

Start by recognising the feelings.

  • Are you feeling worried?
  • Are you becoming more frustrated?
  • Are you feeling anxious?

Once we are aware of our feelings we can purposely take action to calm down your mind and reduce our stress levels.

2. Limit exposure to the news and social media

What we allow into our consciousness will affect our thoughts and mindset.

Overly exposing ourselves to the news and social media will only increase the feeling of threat.

Yes, it is important to be informed; however we do not have to allow this to become all-consuming.

While many of us enjoy staying connected on social media, excessive use can be problematic from a wellbeing perspective.

Turn off the news, stop reading articles on your phone 24/7 and stop following stories on social media.

3. Focus on your wellbeing

We might not be able to control what is happening, but we can control our responses.

We are not our thoughts. We get to decide what we think about. We get to decide how we respond.

Do not allow worry and fear to blind you to the many positive things to be thankful for.

Here are some ideas how:

  • Every night before bed, write down 3 things good things that happened today.
  • Do something that makes you feel good. It will help refocus your mind and make you feel in control.
  • Meditate and focus your mind on positive thoughts.

Take away message

There are no clear answers to what my new transition will look like. I can only guess, hope, worry and wonder.

But conquering my anxiety and braving the new world ahead means being intentional about how I behave, what I think and how I react.

I have the opportunity to find multiple paths of self-discovery within my own mind, if only I stop doing and start being.

What about you?

Do you feel like you’re lost in a fog with no clear way out?

Are you struggling to come to terms with the present reality?

Share your thoughts or reach out for help.

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