1. Understand where this survival-mode living is coming from.
Humans’ most primal defense mechanism is the fight-or-fight response. It arises naturally when we feel threatened, releasing adrenaline, increasing the heart rate, and contracting specific muscles like the psoas — all to help us run away to safety.
So with threats like trauma, we have this internal response that makes us want to run away, but there’s nowhere to run.
But still, since this response is so primal, we find ways to escape. We numb our emotions, create external chaos, crises or busy-ness to avoid feeling our feelings, or maybe escape physically by quitting jobs, exiting relationships, or even moving.
We’re afraid to face our emotions because we’re afraid this pain, which equates to vulnerability, threatens our survival. Ironically your fear of surviving stops you from vulnerably feeling your feelings, the very thing that would help you get out of survival mode.
It’s of course desirable to leave situations that are creating additional trauma, but if you find yourself constantly wanting to run away or unable to relax, it’s likely because of unhealed trauma and survival mode living.
2. Build a relationship with your fear.
In order to feel and heal the emotions underneath the fear, you must first find a way to feel safe.
Feeling your feelings requires great vulnerability, but if you’re stuck in survival mode, or stuck in circumstances that keep recreating trauma, you won’t find that place of safety so you can open your heart, feel, and even crumble if necessary.
Your fear is valid and real and it has messages for you. So before you can even feel, ask your fear what it’s trying to tell you. Are there any physical changes you can make to yourself or your environment to feel more safe?
Maybe you need boundaries with specific relationships, or maybe you need to create better habits. When I was healing from cancer, I was terrified of a recurrence. Petrified. For so many years. Some of this was in my control, and some of it was not.
I could eat healthy, manage stress, feel my emotions instead of repressing them, and exercise. Ultimately, the more I focused on the things I could control, it helped me release fear on the things that I couldn’t.
The more I put my energy into positive motion, acknowledging my fear, but also acknowledging that I didn’t want to waste my life feeling afraid, I was gradually able to let go.
3. Create space in your life.
Everyone these days is sooooo busy. Busy avoiding how they feel. Even many people who haven’t experienced trauma are stuck in survival mode because of chronically elevated stress hormones. The key to allow your nervous system to reset is to create space. Ground down, connect with Earth, do yoga, meditate, eat nurturing foods.
We need space to digest life experiences. And even if something happened a long time ago, you may still need space to feel and heal. Time alone does not heal. We must actively participate in our own transformation.
And a lot of times when you feel internal chaos, you’ll create external chaos. So notice that tendency to latch onto or create busyness, drama, tension or conflict and instead feel the pain underneath of it.
4. Feel your feelings while detaching from the story around them.
Survival mode is all about protection. A lot of times we hold on to our emotions because we deep down feel like they’re protecting us from getting hurt again. And they may very well be doing that. It’s hard to trust life when you’re reeling from past experiences.
But holding on to pain also keeps you from experiencing all the goodness in life. Feeling is the process of not only healing emotions, but processing the experiences related to those emotions, and integrating their wisdom.
In order to get out of survival mode and relax, you must process the emotions related to the unhealed trauma.
When you feel and heal your feelings and absorb the wisdom from your life experiences, this will help you become grateful for your challenges.
When you can feel grateful for your challenges, you won’t be so afraid of life because trusting life doesn’t mean trusting that nothing bad will ever happen to you.
Trusting life is believing it all has meaning.
5. Heal the body.
To unlock full healing, it helps to identify areas of stored tension in the body. Trauma and stress tend to accumulate in the shoulders, in the psoas (a hip flexor muscle), the quads, or hips. Supportive, restorative backbends are great for releasing sadness and opening up to love.
Other good poses to release tension include down puppy for the shoulders, low lunge to release the psoas, and then in a low lunge, you can grab onto the back foot and bring the stretch into the quad. (Check out my post on yoga poses to release emotions like sadness and anger here.)
Physically, experiment with reconnecting to the Earth, spending time in nature. Lie on the floor, absorb the feeling that the Earth is supporting you.
Do cardio to burn off the stress hormones, anything to get your energy moving and realign your body with the flow of life.
Of course, we go into all of these topics much deeper in my courses, where I walk you through the process of shifting your responses, your relationship to yourself, your life and your emotions on a much deeper level.
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is a Tony-winning producer/writer/actor & CEO of TheDreamUnLocked: Boutique Coaching for Actors, Writers & Dreamers