Chronic stress creates an imbalance in our bodies that hijacks our ability to feel safe. Here’s what you need to know about the biology of survival mode.
Ever feel like you’re hanging on by a thread?
This used to be my normal: I would wake up to my alarm going off and feel exhausted. I would stumble through my morning, waiting for the caffeine to kick in, my mind racing with thoughts about my work to-do lists and all the stuff that needed to get done today. Most days I felt like I was playing catch-up from the day before, forgetting to eat until I was either light-headed or I could feel my stomach growling, in a constant state of putting out fires and barely meeting deadlines.
To be clear, this was when I worked in retail, and nothing was ever actually on fire, but it felt like that. Between balancing my work responsibilities and my personal life, I felt like there weren’t enough hours in the day, and I was constantly on edge.
I felt tired, anxious, and disconnected from my body. It was like all the fun had been sucked out of life, and I was just going through the motions at breakneck speed, hoping things would get better, and not knowing what to do differently.
I eventually learned that my body was trying to cope with the effects of chronic stress.
Chronic stress creates an imbalance in our bodies that affects us emotionally, physically, and psychologically. It’s when our bodies get stuck in fight or flight mode. Our stress response is designed for dealing with short-lived episodes of stress where we need to mobilize to escape danger. Once we’re safe from the threat, our bodies are supposed to send out an “all clear” signal that brings us back into homeostasis.
But here’s the thing:
When we’re experiencing stress as a constant background frequency, our bodies don’t get that signal to activate relaxation mode. As a result, we remain in a state of physiological arousal, also known as chronic stress. This is survival mode.
To understand the impact of my chronic stress, I needed to understand what’s going on in our bodies when those stress signals go out. Here’s what I learned:
Stress originates outside of the brain.
Stress activates our brains via the autonomic nervous system. Nerve fibers in the body send information to the brain through a network of nerves and ganglia that feed into the spinal cord. This is data from our sensory organs (eyes, nose, etc.), skin, muscles, glands, and internal organs - these structures detect stimuli and then send messages to the brain. The process of detecting stress fundamentally begins in our bodies. We can be aware of some of this information, but a lot of it, especially the messages from our visceral organs, is vague and barely perceptible to the conscious mind. So the notion that stress is “all in your head” is bunk.
Stress activates the amygdala.
The amygdala is a pair of almond-shaped structures in the brain involved in decision making, emotional processing, and forming memories. The two sides of the amygdala actually have independent memory functions, with one side primarily focused on negative emotions like fear and sadness, and the other side processing both positive and negative emotions, as well as serving a role in the brain’s reward system. Studies show that the amygdala appears to play a major role in fear, anxiety, alcoholism and binge-drinking, aggression, and emotional intelligence.
So, when we perceive stress in our bodies, either consciously or unconsciously, that sends a message to the part of the brain that regulates emotions, most notably fear. That part of the brain, the amygdala, then sends a signal to activate fight or flight mode.
The amygdala activates the HPA-axis, which triggers the release of stress hormones.
When activated, the amygdala sends a message to the hypothalamus, which is a brain structure that links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland. The endocrine system is a network of glands that produce hormones that get released into the bloodstream and help our cells and organs talk to each other.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis represents a complex bio-feedback loop that controls our stress response. It also regulates our digestion, immune system, sexual function, metabolism, and our moods and emotions. When this system gets activated, it sends out signals that trigger the release of cortisol and adrenaline directly into our bloodstream. When they hit our bloodstream, these stress hormones immediately elevate our blood pressure and suppress immune function.
So, to recap:
Stress is perceived in our body, which sends a signal to the brain, which triggers hormonal changes that impact our emotions and thoughts, our heart and lungs, our muscles, blood vessels, sex organs, digestive and immune systems.
Chronic stress is when these processes are running all the time instead of just in short bursts. When this happens, it puts tremendous pressure on the entire system, and creates a lot of problems. Some of the most common symptoms of chronic stress are:
Aches and pains
Changes in memory & cognitive function
Feelings of helplessness & loss of control
Lower back pain
Muscle tension & spasms
Nervousness & anxiety
What’s wild to me is how chronic stress is so easy to overlook - we can become so accustomed to discomfort that we start to feel like it’s normal, and we might not even realize that we’ve picked up coping mechanisms to help us ignore the pain and just keep pushing through. I think it’s actually a testament to how amazing our bodies are - we can develop adaptive strategies to deal with increasing stress levels and not even be consciously aware of them.
But there’s a flip side - chronic stress takes a toll on your overall health, and can have serious implications in the long run. We’ve all been living under a tremendous amount of stress for the last two years, and it’s not surprising to me that a simple Google search for the term “Covid stress” brings up over a billion results.
If you feel like you might be suffering the effects of chronic stress, here are 9 signs that your body is stuck in survival mode:
Fatigue - This can show up as feeling generally tired or having less energy than you normally would, as well as feeling mentally or emotionally drained.
Loss of sleep - You have trouble going to sleep at night, wake up at odd hours and struggle to go back to sleep, or have trouble waking up in the morning.
Heavy reliance on caffeine - You feel like you can’t function until you’ve had your morning coffee, and then you need more caffeine throughout the day, especially around 2 or 3 in the afternoon when your energy starts to wane.
Forgetting to take care of yourself - You often forget to eat and drink throughout the day, or maybe you struggle with caring for your own basic needs like washing your face, changing your sheets, etc.
Changes in memory - You’re forgetting appointments, missing deadlines, or having a hard time remembering situations or things that happened throughout the day. If someone asks you how your day was, you might honestly not know.
Sugar cravings - You find yourself reaching for sugary snacks and drinks, especially mid-day and late at night.
Lack of focus - You might be experiencing “brain fog” or having trouble concentrating, or struggle with completing tasks the way you normally would.
Feeling overwhelmed - There’s too much everything. This can feel like you’re being buried under responsibilities and to-do lists, or like you’re just waiting for that final straw that you know is coming.
Emotional reactivity - You may feel irritable, easily triggered, more sensitive than usual, snippy and short tempered, or even find yourself crying over things that normally wouldn’t upset you.
If this is you, you’re not alone. A 2020 study conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association found that 49% of adults felt that stress was negatively impacting their daily lives.
The good news is, identifying the problem is the first step toward healing, and there are ways to shift out of survival mode and start feeling better. These are the things that helped me the most:
Adjust your nutrients. There’s a growing body of research into the relationship between nutrient deficiencies and mental health. The standard American diet has been linked to deficiencies in vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, and almost all of the antioxidants we need to function optimally. Adding high quality supplements and nutrient-rich foods to our diets can pay major dividends, physically and otherwise.
Start saying no. If you’re in survival mode, your body needs to rest. Carving out time for rest is going to involve setting energetic boundaries. If you can opt out of social engagements or additional projects at work, delegate chores at home, or even avoid emotionally draining conversations, do it. You don’t have to do all of the things all the time. Saying no can be a powerful way to reclaim your time and energy, and start to rewire the mental patterns that keep us stuck.
Somatic therapies & breathwork. Trauma and stress get stored in our bodies, and stress hormones affect our breathing. Releasing pent up or trapped emotional energy from our bodies is essential. Breathwork, yoga, massage, ecstatic dance, martial arts - there are multiple ways to recruit our bodies into the healing process, but what’s important is that we move our bodies and breathe. When we get our bodies moving in ways that feel good, it helps us release energy and reset our brains. If you’ve ever seen a dog shake himself off after a play fight, you’ve seen this in action.
Look at what you’re taking in. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to start curating my mental diet. The ideas and images we take in are just as important as what we eat. If you’re following social media or news accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, others, or the world, consider muting or unfollowing them, and start following accounts that add value and inspire you.
If you can’t find joy, look for relief. Being stuck in survival mode can rob us of our sense of fun, play and joy. There’s a lot of messaging in the self-development space around “finding your joy” and while I agree that joy is important, what do we do if we can’t even remember or connect with that feeling anymore? The answer is to follow relief. The physical sensation of relief can guide you out of survival mode, and help you reconnect with yourself.
These techniques can help you address the outcomes of chronic stress, and they’re all things that you can start doing today. Survival mode can make us feel like we have no control, which can reinforce the perceptions that make us feel stressed in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle.
Taking a step back and making changes that help our bodies feel safe and nourished can help our brains rewrite the patterns that keep us trapped in survival mode. When we take steps towards wellness, particularly when we try something new, we can actually start to rewire our fight or flight response by sending this message to our brains: “I can trust myself to make healthy decisions that support my survival and keep me safe.”
Our nervous systems are malleable - even if we’ve been stuck for decades, we are capable of reshaping our perceptions and developing new neural pathways that support us. It’s never too late. I invite you to start today - think about the ways you can support yourself in feeling good, and start there.