Do you know what it means to be in survival mode?

I’ve not spoken about this in a while because I have been so caught up in the struggle; it hadn’t occurred to me.

During therapy tonight with the kids, our therapist mentioned that I’m in survival mode. I’m very familiar with survival mode but hadn’t actually thought about it in a long time.

I think many fulltime caregivers experience survival mode, but it can happen to anyone.

Survival mode is a state in which a persons functionality is temporarily but significantly reduced to preserve what little physical and emotional resources they have left. This is not to be confused with laziness because it’s not at all the same thing.



Someone enters survival mode when they are physically and emotionally bankrupt. This is common for caregivers and parents of special needs children.

I’ll give you an example.

When I’m in survival mode, I’m functioning at a base level. I can accomplish very little, and so I have to focus on spending my limited resources where it matters most.

Think of it like this. We all use smartphones. They run tons of apps at the same time and can really help us to manage our daily lives. They can multitask for us, make sure we get our messages, emails, and keep track of our schedules.

When our smartphone battery runs low, and we are unable to charge it, we can put our phone into battery saver mode. The phone will still function and maintain the essentials like making and receiving calls, but its overall functionality is significantly reduced.

The screen will dim, the processor will throttle down and apps will be closed. It will run much slower and no longer multitask as well. Background operations will minimize or stop altogether, and the smartphone’s priority will shift from keeping up with everything, to preserving only the most essential functions.

When I’m in survival mode, very little gets done because I’m so burned out that I’m physically and emotionally bankrupt.

My memory, focus, and motivation will suffer greatly. I’m very easily overwhelmed, and my level of function is significantly impacted.

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I push whatever I have left to make sure the kids get their basic needs met. I make sure they’re safe, they eat, get their medications, and everyone gets to important appointments. Sometimes, that’s literally all I can do. Forget about being productive anywhere else in my life. Pretty much everything gets put on the back burner because I have nothing left to give.

Survival mode is all about surviving. You hunker down, do the absolute bare minimum because you’re trying to simply make it through. Your physical and emotional resources are often depleted, leaving you unable to function in many areas of your life.

Things like depression only make this worse. Self-care is critical to surviving because you’re putting the focus on you and replenishing your resources, so you can be what everyone needs you to be.

I think survival mode is a necessary evil at times, but you don’t want to get stuck in survival mode for extended periods.

Anyway, I’m in survival mode, and I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I was beating myself up because I wasn’t maintaining when I should have been cutting myself slack. Sometimes it’s hard to see the obvious, and we need an objective 3rd party to point these things out to us.

The difficult thing for me is that my family can’t survive me shutting down. Lizze is not doing so well right now and is unable to really offset the load. For this reason, I will need to focus on putting some things down for right now. I’m spread thin as it is and my priorities have to be meeting at least the basic needs of my kids and bringing in money so I can feed everyone.

I also need to prioritize taking care of myself as well. It’s really hard to do that at times like this but doing so is the only way I’m going to survive.

Have you ever experienced life in survival mode? Share your story in the comments and perhaps our experience can help someone else.



  • lauren says:

    Nonverbal Learning Challenge here. ADD. Anxiety. Depression. PTSD.
    I’m always in survival mode. Always. It’s exhausting.

    I have come to use the analogy of a backpack that’s too full. What can I take out?

  • BJW says:

    I experience survival mode differently. It’s usually more when I’m impaired from my fibromyalgia. I live with all adults and as long as someone buys food we can eat, especially if either I or Bob aren’t up to cooking. (There is a little food prep, and a little canned goods or dried soup to eat, and also a little ordering in. It works.)

    Anyway, so if I’m just going on a low battery, metaphorically speaking, I’ll try to think of the most necessary things. Like feeding 5 cats! Laundry is simple and I can throw a load in. Or (when I can’t move easily) I have Henry do it. I do a great deal of online ordering so I’m comfortable doing it even when fibro fogging, so to speak. But my survival mode is illness based, not so much big stress (albeit some).

    Rob, do you have ONE pleasant or relaxing or enjoyable thing to do that takes you away from stress? For example, I love to read fiction books and I love music: listening, singing or playing. Some people meditate to get away from stress. Your walking is very good to help with stress. But it’s also productivity driven. Just wondering if you can ever do something that you wish you could do, but then decide you don’t have the time. Sometimes even just a little while in a hobby that takes you away from reality can be helpful.