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Early in my career, my job tasks overwhelmed me on a daily basis, until a colleague’s remark changed my perceptions about work: “No one is going to die if you stop working for an hour to eat lunch with us.”

“Survival mode” needs to be reserved for true life and death situations, like when this dog wants to kill me.

Too many people operate in survival mode, with elevated respiration and heart rates, cortisol and adrenaline pumping, and central nervous systems on high alert. In prehistoric times, living in such a state would be adaptive if it helped you avoid being eaten by a lion, but today, living in constant survival mode is unnecessary, drains energy, compromises physical and mental health, and limits performance. It is simply not sustainable over time.

A survival response (also known as a limbic or involuntary nervous system response) can still come in handy, like the time a 120-pound German shepherd, emboldened by its clueless owner, lunged at me with intent to harm. With no voluntary thought or planning, my nervous system took over, aided by a flood of hormones, to command my musculoskeletal system to achieve one split-second goal: get me out of chomping range. It worked, and I escaped the jaws of death, but it took ten minutes for my respiration to return to normal, and to regain my muscle strength (translation: legs no longer shaking). For some, the physical recovery from that survival response could take much longer.

Treating a situation like running late as if it were life or death can take a heavy toll–especially if you’re always late.

To avoid a dog bite, it was worth it. However, imagine how often people trick their bodies into responding this way—and suffering the same costs—for situations that are not truly tied to their survival. Many describe experiencing similar physiological reactions when they are running late for work, sitting down with their supervisor for a performance evaluation, reading an email, anticipating an unpleasant conversation with a colleague, and believe it or not, planning a vacation. In their minds, they are dodging vicious dogs all day long, suffering stress and losing quality of life.

Could any of these situations actually jeopardize a person’s survival, or lead to someone suffering physical harm? If you catch yourself in the midst of a survival response, the first step to recovery is asking yourself precisely that question: “Under the current circumstances, is someone likely to suffer serious harm, or is my long-term survival somehow at risk?” Answering honestly, the conclusion will almost always be no.

When I ask people this question, they begrudgingly admit that the situation is not truly life or death, but then argue that others will feel angry, disappointed, or hurt; that their organization will lose money, future business, or reputation; and that these consequences will ultimately affect their job status, value as a human being, and physical survival. Even if those courses of events were remotely accurate, they would still not require a limbic survival response anywhere near the level of vicious dog avoidance. I needed every ounce of my being to juke that shepherd, but if I’m late for work, I only need a fraction of that energy and focus to shave a few minutes off my commute. Even if I did go on high alert while running late, it would not help me reach the office much sooner (unless I lived in Montana or rural Germany).

Hurt feelings, productivity, reputation, and even job status are simply not in the same class as survival-based events, and people gain no advantage from trying to make their job—and anything that happens in it—a matter of survival. They also pay a high price for this mindset. Asking “Is anyone going to die?” or “What’s the worst that can happen?” can help bring matters into perspective.

Here’s a situation where a little extra stress hormone might come in handy.

If those don’t help calm the survival response, focusing on the moment might. Letting the eyes wander, taking in surroundings with all five senses, describing objects in the immediate environment (e.g. bright computer monitor, humming air vent), and asking “What’s going on right here, right now?” can all help lead to being “present” and making an accurate appraisal of your safety needs. Finally, since a survival response typically involves elevated respiration, a deliberately relaxed breathing pattern—inhaling four seconds, exhaling four seconds, repeating for a long as necessary—can disrupt the response before it gains too much momentum and saps your energy.

by Jason Sackett, LCSW
Professional Staff at CWFL

jsackett@usc.edu