The Winding Path

Counselling Services provided by Barb Zacharias

Summer 2020: Survival Mode

Posted on Jul 31, 2020

Summer 2020: Survival Mode

As evidenced by the absence of blog entries, I haven’t written much lately. Not even in my personal journal, which had me puzzled. In the “real world” of writers, it is common practice that one must write at least something every day. It’s certainly not for lack of pondering. And I wouldn’t label it as writer’s block. More along the lines of missing motivation than inspiration. Reluctantly, I admit to moments of losing interest in the idea of maintaining a regular blog. I don’t know how daily or even weekly bloggers do it.

I love words. Always have. I enjoy the actual process of playing with combinations of words to create just the right nuance or picture. I appreciate the power of words—to uplift, encourage, challenge, inspire, heal, connect, engage, interact; but most of all, the ability to make sense of the senseless. The healing power of meaning can only be conveyed via words.

Many weeks ago, I made an attempt at writing a blog entry to “use my words” to process anger I was experiencing at the time. This proved helpful and produced a seed or nugget for a future blog. I even liked what I wrote at the time; but instead of pursuing that line of thinking, it is time to unpack this supposed “writer’s block.” After mulling it over for quite some time, the reason finally occurred to me: survival mode.

For quite some time now I have been in “survival mode.” Not the kind that lands a person on a survival skills TV show—although some would likely challenge that assumption living in an ongoing renovation project—but the psychological kind that engulfs a person in a shroud of self-preservation stifling creativity and spontaneity. However, I didn’t recognize it as survival mode. I was sheltered, fed, clothed. All the essentials. Finances are tight; but somehow I am staying afloat—or as I like to say, keeping the wolves from the door. I have never been healthier (all things considered). My mental health is in check.

So what was I surviving? Turns out my mental health may not have been as stable as I was leading myself to believe. I went into survival mode because the normal routines that keep me sane were being challenged daily. I am no longer a neat-, clean-, or control-freak. I can live with more ambiguity than ever before. However, my house was in limbo for several months waiting for its electrical upgrade to be completed. Wires hanging about. Fixtures waiting to be homed. Opened cavities in my walls.

Two things I remain terrible at handling: waiting and disorganization. With my actual house in a state of disarray: Paperwork piled up; Messes piled up; Dust piled up. I couldn’t properly clean anything. Objects couldn’t be put back in their places. My house (and life) was in a state of limbo. And for the most part, I was powerless to make anything happen not being an electrician and circumstances being beyond my control. So my two Achilles heels combined into kryptonite (mixed metaphor, I know). I was forced to wait in an environment of disorganization.

The cornerstone of mental health is maintaining routines. I was barely managing to keep up with the basics, so some things fell by the wayside. I am slowly returning to my full morning and bedtime routines with positive results. And my house is inching its way back to habitable. I am once again feeling the creative juices flowing—whether writing or making home improvements. Structural cavities have been filled, primer and paint are gradually making their way to my walls.

So I do find it interesting that survival mode does not mean lack of productivity. Many projects have been completed in the past few months. My home and yard are continually evolving into my own little paradise and sanctuary. But living in a state of chaos does impact my sense of self and well-being. My brain focuses on the practical, day-to-day stuff only. Part of me shuts down as it were. My mind can’t relax and wander where it will. My spirit retreats to safety—waiting for the imposed disorganization to pass. Survival mode.

Interestingly, recently I spoke to someone about waiting—which in retrospect clarifies my survival mode. Waiting is generally associated with anticipation and excitement—or annoyance and frustration. But for those of us with traumatic childhoods, waiting is linked to danger: waiting for the other shoe to drop; for the mood to change; for the blow to hit; for the storm to pass. Our brains need to be retrained to the many nuances of waiting—not just danger.

Hence, in the framework of waiting equaling danger, it makes sense that my brain entered survival or shut-down mode. Even though it was innocuous waiting—for the electrician to be done and my house to return to being my sanctuary—my brain didn’t know the difference. It just knew we were waiting. And waiting means impending danger. To make matters worse, I could not rely upon my usual “go to” to self-soothe: organization; amplifying the angst attached to waiting. Now that this is part of my consciousness, I can work on retraining my brain and its associations with waiting. Maybe next time my life is surrounded by chaos, I will be able to self-soothe more effectively and not enter survival mode. The healing journey continues.

As you continue on your own journey, here are some questions to consider: What is your kryptonite that sends you into survival mode? What does it look like when you shut down? What negative associations hinder your ability to self-soothe? What changes need to be made to your framework?


  1. Great post! Kryptonite used to be disorganization (still triggers me) living with someone else has definitely (not cured) but lessened the effect on me. When I shut down, I disconnect and I’m learning to ask myself everyday what matters to me? If it is the relationship I usually try to figure my stuff out (why do I want to disconnect, usually hurt, feelings of rejection, etc).

  2. When work gets really busy, and I cannot finish my “To Do” list before home time. When life gets too people-y – a full day of ppl at work, then dance class, performance on the weekend, I have to run errands… I burn out! I crash! Nothing gets done at home, nothing creative happens. Netflix never stops, tea is made, food ingested, (not good food), and butt does not leave the couch. I then stress, ’cause there’s no clean dishes or clothes, no food made, I eat fast food… big circle! Haven’t figured out all the answers, but I’m working on it!

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