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What Does Survival Mode Look Like?

When survival mode is activated, our alarm system  (the amygdala)  prioritises keeping us safe in one of six ways.When this survival response occurs, you are no longer properly in control. 


At this point, this is a state of overwhelm and questions or requests to ‘Use your words’ to explain what is going on will make things worse. If asked what is going on or how to help, the response is very likely to be ‘I don’t know.’


As the overwhelm increases, more and more control is lost, until at full meltdown, all control belongs to the amygdala and the amygdala only.


Survival mode is an extremely unpleasant experience, it is terrifying and often painful. It is not a conscious choice.


The brain thinks it can fight off or scare off the threat.

  • Blaming, deflecting responsibility

  • Demanding, controlling

  • Irritable, aggressive

  • Yelling, screaming, using mean words

  • Hitting, kicking, biting


The brain thinks it can flee the scene to get to safety, either physically or mentally

  • Running away / Escaping / eloping

  • Wanting to escape/ run away

  • Hiding in safe space

  • Unfocused, hard to pay attention, restless

  • Preoccupied, busy with everything else

  • ‘Silly’ behaviours, messing around

  • Demand avoidant

  • Ignores the situation


The brain thinks that by showing extreme distress it can persuade someone to act as a protector

  • Extreme emotional display, can feel like having ALL the emotions at once at full volume

  • Can start small, with flushing face and imminent tears - the effort of restraining the emotional display can increase the overwhelm and speed up meltdown

  • Heavy crying, although the sensation is often frustration or anger not sadness

  • Girls are likely to do this as told you are not allowed to 'act out' due to societal expectations



The brain seeks to placate the threat and aims to avoid conflict through extreme people pleasing behaviour

  • Extreme People pleasing

  • Struggling with defending own boundaries

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Difficulty saying no

  • Prioritising other's needs to the detriment of your own

  • Masking

  • Submissive

  • Joking, trying to get others to laugh

  • Actively seeking praise and affirmation

  • Echolalia - repeating what someone else has just said



The brain seeks to avoid conflict or appearing threatening so the threat will give up and go away

  • Feeling weak

  • Feeling sleepy

  • Exhaustion

  • Submissive / passively following instruction

  • Zoning out / Daydreaming

  • Disconnected / Ignoring outside attempts at connection

  • Echolalia - repeating what has been said around you



The brain chooses to disconnect the body to ‘play dead’ until the threat gives up and goes away or to disconnect the body and cognitive brain to prevent severe damage from mental overload

  • Shutting down, mind goes blank - can feel like a switch turning the lights off and everything becomes peaceful

  • Unable to move or speak, feeling stuck

  • Ignoring others

  • Catatonia


Notes to mention:

The behaviours we describe above can happen outside of a survival situation in addition to within a survival situation. 

  • Someone may yell when they are having fun.

  • Someone might run away for fun, rather than because they are under threat. 

  • We can cry because we are genuinely hurt or upset.

  • We can people please because we enjoy making others happy.

  • Daydreaming can be a very enjoyable pastime as well as a survival mechanism.

  • Getting into flow and getting absorbed into what we are doing is a natural and healthy way of being.

  • We can disconnect because our brain is tired and we just need to zone out for a bit.


The important thing to remember is context and consistency.


If a parent is reporting high anxiety and meltdowns at home, but in class you are seeing an eager class helper or a daydreamer, then it is very likely you are seeing a high stress response in a context where fight or flight aren’t options.


If someone is regularly exhibiting these behaviours, especially if there seems to be no reason or only a minor reason,  then there is likely to be unseen stressors that are being missed.

Survival response chart

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