Dense forest, alone and without orientation. Your mobile phone has no reception, the sun is setting and the temperature is dropping. You are forced to act instinctively to keep warm, find food and a safe place to sleep. You are in survival mode.

Everything was great: joie de vivre, balance, good sleep. Until this one moment. That one word. The sentence that catapults you into a state of emergency from one moment to the next. Chaos inside. A complete state of emergency.


Now imagine that this forest is not a real place, but a metaphor for your daily life. You’re constantly under pressure, battling deadlines, balancing professional and personal commitments and trying to keep on top of things in an increasingly complex world. You live in survival mode.

It is better to fulfil your own destiny imperfectly than to fulfil someone else’s perfectly.

Paulo Coelho in: The Alchimist

The concept of survival mode as a life model. What does it mean to be constantly in this state of “survival”? How does it affect our well-being, our relationships and our view of the world? Is it even sustainable to live constantly in survival mode?

Survival Mode: ON

Why? A minimal gesture, a word, an action or inaction… can send people with deep (even unconscious) wounds into the absolute emergency mode of body and soul. Into autopilot. Where it’s all about bare survival. Because that is the signal your nervous system receives: Alarm!

The forest. Deep, dark forest. I had such an experience in July 2021, travelling to Spain by car in several stages. The first stage took me to Lake Constance. To eat really well, I was allowed to walk 20-30 minutes from my accommodation through the forest. The same back. My hosts said that wouldn’t be a problem at all, nothing had ever happened there.

Now I’m not that scared, but those 30 minutes through the forest, where it was really pitch black… (despite the full moon at night) took me into survival mode: sweating, walking very fast, all kinds of spooky thoughts, constantly turning round, heart racing… I was exhausted afterwards. I don’t know about my dog, who was with me, but he protected us well.

Well, but you don’t walk through the forest every day. So how can it be that so many people are in survival mode without realising it?

Survival mode as an addictive behavior

The mode of over-living (instead of energetic living) starts very early for many people. Completely unconsciously. We learn from our parents, ancestors, forefathers… from the nursery school teacher and the teacher. And all these people have their own history, ancestors, ancestors. And they pass on what they have experienced, learnt and internalised. Very often these are dysfunctional patterns. This, too, is usually completely unconscious for these people.

And that is precisely the issue: the unconscious passing on of behaviours that are based on (ancient) wounds and traumas: Transgenerational traumas. Which are not talked about. Either because they are not conscious or because “they are not talked about”. The problem is: they are still there. Their energy is “in the room”. And burdens all subsequent generations as long as the topic is not recognised or is hushed up.

Transgenerational traumatisation is about those who have been traumatised before us passing on their unprocessed stressful experiences, which then have to be dealt with by the next generation. That is what we need to understand. We get what the others have not processed!

Michaela Huber, Psychological Psychotherapist and Trauma-Expert in (translated)

Survival mode as a life model: function before vitality

This state is called “survival mode”. Survival. The oldest part of our brain kicks in. The one with the mammoth. Our body reacts to danger, real or not. No more sensible decisions are possible here.

Survival only.

And it doesn’t even need a mammoth – or a deep dark forest. Psychological stressors (work pressure, financial worries or relationship problems), such as the boss who is always so choleric, are enough. Or the mother-in-law who is always ranting.

Our body’s response is always the same: stress. And stress is caused by (unconscious) fear. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of doing something “wrong”. Fear of not doing enough. Fear of being embarrassed in front of others (colleagues), fear of not being enough (for the job, the boss, the partner…).

Although these stressors do not pose the same immediate physical threat as the dangers faced by our ancestors (mammoth), our body still reacts in the same way. This can lead to a number of health problems in the long run if the body is constantly in survival mode and does not have sufficient opportunity for recovery and regeneration. It is therefore important to develop effective stress management strategies to maintain a healthy balance.

Wow! What a cycle! Fear = Stress = Survival Mode

We are usually not aware of this mechanism. We “are just like that”. If we also have old, unhealed wounds, we have even less capacity to act on these (perceived) expectations. Our mental capacity = tolerance window is lower and cannot adequately cope with the highs and lows. And that means stress.

The fact is: stress catapults people into survival mode. Stress of any kind. And since we as a society are virtually permanently in the same mode, most people live in precisely this survival mode. Fatal. Because in this state, no meaningful decisions are possible per se.

Our survival mode is deeply rooted in our biology and can be seen as part of our evolutionary heritage. It is closely linked to the autonomic nervous system, in particular the sympathetic nervous system, which is often referred to as our “fight or flight” system. When we find ourselves in a threatening situation – whether real or imagined – this system is activated to prepare us for the impending danger.

The activation of the sympathetic nervous system leads to a number of physiological changes: Heart rate and blood pressure increase, breathing quickens, pupils dilate and blood flow to the muscles increases. At the same time, digestion slows down and non-essential functions such as the immune system and reproduction are shut down. All these reactions serve to prepare the body for a possible fight or flight response.

In addition to these physiological reactions, there are also a number of hormonal reactions. The stress hormone adrenaline is released, which leads to increased alertness and readiness. The hormone cortisol is also released, which helps to increase blood sugar levels and ensure the body’s energy supply.

Some reactions at a glance:

  • In survival mode, or “fight or flight” mode, our body triggers a series of stress responses to prepare for a perceived threat. These responses include:
  • Increased heart rate: The heart starts to beat faster to pump more blood to the muscles and other important organs.
  • Accelerated breathing: Breathing becomes faster to increase the oxygen content in the blood and prepare the body for activity.
  • Dilation of the pupils: The pupils dilate to let in more light and improve visual acuity, especially in situations with poor lighting conditions.
  • Release of adrenaline: The stress hormone adrenaline is released, which leads to increased alertness and readiness.
  • Increase in blood sugar levels: The body releases stored glucose and fatty acids to increase the energy supply.
  • Slowing of digestion: Digestion is slowed down as the body concentrates its resources on coping with the perceived threat.
  • Inhibition of the immune and reproductive systems: Non-vital functions such as the immune system and reproduction are shut down in order to save energy for coping with the threat.
  • Increase in muscle tension: The muscles become tense and ready for action, either to fight or to flee.
  • Increased pain tolerance: The body can dampen the perception of pain in order to focus on the threat and maintain the ability to act.
  • Change in the thought process: There may be an increased focus on the perceived threat and a neglect of other thoughts and information.

These reactions are all designed to prepare the body for a rapid response to a perceived threat. They are helpful in acute stress situations, but can lead to health problems in chronic stress.

Under the pressure not to make any mistakes, all vitality evaporates.

Ernst Ferstl (translated from German)

How does “functioning” manifest itself in everyday life?

People in survival mode, or functional mode, do one thing very well: they function. Like a machine. Almost. Without mistakes. That’s the fatal thing, because for a long, long time the outside world sees nothing of their suffering. And often they themselves don’t suffer at all – they rush from one appointment to the next with eagerness and joy – after all, they are someone! They are needed!

They don’t realise that this is an illusion – and that they themselves are as lifeless as it gets, well on the way to depression and burnout. On the contrary: they usually feel fantastic! At first.

Later, some of these symptoms become apparent…

  1. Overreacting to small problems: A sign that someone is in survival mode may be that they react to small problems or challenges with excessive worry or anger. For example, a forgotten errand or a small delay in traffic could lead to disproportionate stress or anger.
  2. Sleep problems: People in survival mode often have difficulty falling asleep or sleeping through the night. They wake up at night and worry, think about problems that occupied them during the day or have racing thoughts and panic attacks.
  3. Social withdrawal: In survival mode, people tend to withdraw. They are less interested in social activities and distance themselves from friends and family as their energy and attention is focussed on their perceived problems.
  4. Constant exhaustion: Despite getting enough sleep, people in functional mode are constantly tired or exhausted. This is because chronic stress and constant vigilance exhaust the body and mind.
  5. Difficulty making decisions: People in survival mode usually have difficulty making decisions because they are constantly on guard and have difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly.
  6. Overeating or neglecting food: Often people tend to overeat, especially foods that are high in sugar or fat, as a form of “comfort food”. Others neglect their diet, forget to eat or don’t have the time or energy to cook.

These examples show how survival mode can influence daily life and behaviour. Of course, every person is different and not everyone in functional mode shows all the symptoms.

Survival mode as a life mode

How can I get out of this vicious circle?

Getting out of the vicious circle of survival mode or chronic stress requires one thing: awareness of the fact that I am in such a state. Unfortunately, this awareness is usually only present, if at all, when it is almost no longer possible. Because loooong before that – the person feels “really good” because he/she is “important” – the drug – in this case – works.

At this point, a conscious decision needs to be made that you want to get out of this vicious circle. And of course there is always at least one specific trigger for the stress you are experiencing: usually work, the relationship, or both.

On the one hand, “only” turning to effective methods of stress management (yoga, breathwork…) is certainly a sensible way to start somewhere. But it is too short-sighted. The exercises can certainly help to reactivate the parasympathetic nervous system (even if this will take longer at first, as most clients are at an absolute high energy level) and put the body into a state of calm and relaxation.

Regular physical activity is also an effective way of coping with stress. Long walks or light running, invigorating yoga or salsa dancing help to reduce stress hormones and promote the production of endorphins, the so-called “feel-good” hormones.

A healthy diet and sufficient sleep (at least 7-8 hours) are also crucial for coping with stress. A balanced diet with good proteins, fresh and colourful fruit and vegetables provides the body with the necessary nutrients to deal with stress, while sufficient sleep gives the body the opportunity to recover and regenerate.

All of this is wonderful – and supports a truly vibrant life. But: it doesn’t get to the root cause. The point at which “fight” or “flight” has been activated in us. The point at which “survival” has begun. Without professional counselling with trauma expertise, most people quickly find themselves back on the same hamster wheel. And often they don’t even manage to implement the points mentioned above in the long term (diet, sleep, exercise…) because the old pattern is too strong, the pull too strong…

Of course, and this is a very clear thing: getting out of survival mode takes time and patience. It is a process. A process of recognising, reprogramming and establishing new, healthy and vibrant life strategies, without self-sabotage.

Trauma piece of Survival Mode

If the traumatised part wants to protect you

Some of the processes I have been able to accompany have actually taken years. If severe traumatic events are involved (and only “show up” much later), it can also be the case that a client falls back into ancient patterns (the deep trauma is like a wide motorway that is “known”, you drive it blindly, so to speak) – and acts out of them.

This is the point at which healing begins, if the client is still aware of WHO has just taken control. However, if the client can no longer be reached because the traumatic part is at the helm (which wants to protect the wounded part with all its might), it is like fighting a fire-breathing dragon – and unfortunately the process does not continue there. Although that was exactly the point that was being worked towards. That is a great pity.

It is important to understand that negotiating with traumatised parts is a complex and often lengthy task. It requires patience, compassion and, above all, professional support.

This is exactly where my services come in. I provide a safe space and a supportive environment in which we look at your specific stress. Together we work to regain control of this dynamic and initiate the healing process, even if it feels like you are fighting a fire-breathing dragon.

It is normal in this process to experience setbacks and sometimes feel like you are not making progress. But please remember that healing is possible. I am here to guide you on this path. If you are ready to take the next step, I look forward to talking to you.

Sincerely yours,