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Moving from Survival to Self-Care

Moving Past Survival Mode


When you are only taking care of a basic level of survival, of course you are still physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted.

The process of self-care is when you can fully meet all your basic needs of physical health, safety, belonging, self-confidence, and self-reflection. Then you can practice self-care by listening and integrating your emotional experience.

The painful experiences of your life that trigger a primal survival response and shut down your ability to engage and have one primary function: avoiding death. Just surviving in life is not fully living as a human.

To meet the current pace and demands of work, personal, and life activities, you sacrificed everything down to the basic building blocks of being a human. Skipping meals, staying up late into the night, pushing your body and mind past their limits into a place of survival.

When talking about self-care, a common sentiment is you must put on your oxygen mask first. I encourage you to stop using an extremely traumatic and possibly life-ending event to reference the act of taking care of yourself. If the oxygen mask falls out of the ceiling while you are on a plane, you are going to be fighting for your life and in complete survival mode, as you should be.

The ability to go into survival mode during a life-threatening event is a gift to handle the traumatic events of life. Survival mode needs to do its job save your life and then return to its resting place until a new threat is identified. This step is often missed. Your brain does not register the different levels of trauma. A threat is a threat.

If you were verbally abused or physically attacked your brain triggers the same survival response. Survival mode takes over until safety is restored in your life. You can resolve the painful experiences that threatened your existence and put you into a survival response by resetting and restoring your life after the threat is gone. This is an active and intentional process of redefining your environment, thoughts, and behaviors.

Finding what you needed when the pain started is where you rebuild the foundation of your life. Take a deep look at how you develop as a human and review the work of Abraham Maslow’s book Toward a Psychology of Being and his hierarchy of needs.

There are basic things you need to thrive in your life. To get there, you need to address your physical needs, your safety and security, your sense of love and belonging, your esteem, and your self-actualization. Meeting your basic human needs brings you to the present moment and allows you to stop reliving your pain and heal the wounds of the past.

This process works no matter what stage you are at – from being homeless to struggling with addiction, or if you are high-functioning at the top of your career. You can be in a place where practicing self-care is a valid tool to cope with daily life stressors restoring emotional balance in your life.

Physical Needs

When you sacrifice the basic needs of your body, your body responds with rampant problems, disease, and dysregulation in your system. While working full-time and giving all of yourself to a career, family, or education, the one thing that is easy to sacrifice is what your body needs.

When you push yourself to meet deadlines and demands – not needing to go to the bathroom or take a lunch break – to meet your work goals, this sacrifice stops your ability to feel your physical, emotional, and mental needs. To stop living in survival mode, you need to go to the basic level of functioning and much like you would take care of an infant, give yourself the same respect for basic needs.

Your basic physical needs are water, food, air, shelter, clothing, and sleep. These are the items that have been labeled as self-care. Self-care is a tool for reducing burnout, but these activities are basic acts of survival.

To create a life you thrive in, you must prioritize your physical needs. Sleeping, eating, drinking water, and using the bathroom during your workdays are no longer negotiable. You need to balance your needs so that by the end of the day, you are not physically exhausted and crashing onto the couch with a takeout order and binging Netflix.


As you meet your physical needs you will have more energy to focus on your world and the safety that surrounds you. Your reset response to fear is safety. To continue in the restorative process, you must have a sense of safety in your environment. You need to build a physical and emotional alarm system that protects you from threats in your community, your home, your work environment, and with the people around you.

Have you ever stopped to think, “How do I feel safe in my life?” You can spend all day thinking about what scares you and what could go wrong in your life. Instead, start your day with the right question: “What feels safe to me?”

Start with the external things in your life. Do you feel safe in your home? If the answer is no, then something needs to change. What does not feel safe at home? Is it your actual house, your neighborhood, or a family member? Addressing these issues is the first step in making sure your foundation for healing is strong. Maybe you need to add an actual alarm system, get a dog, set a boundary in your relationship, or leave a toxic relationship. Safety in your environment is key to the process of healing.

You must keep asking yourself the question, “What do I need to feel safe right now?”

Ask yourself what makes you feel good and bad. Listen to the answer and move toward the things that add good feelings into your life. Set boundaries to protect yourself. Saying “no” to the thing you do not want in your life or telling a friend you cannot talk about a certain topic with them. Stop the engagements that make you feel bad. Limit your exposure to the coworker who is passive aggressive and who makes you feel bad about yourself. Avoid the phone call that makes you feel worse about life.


Restoring security and trust in your life reduces the level of threat your brain perceives in your environment. Feeling secure in life is more than physical and emotional safety. It is trusting the environments and people who surround you and creating a belief system of trust. Knowing that you can depend on the people in your life, work environment, and home allows your brain to rest from working overtime in trying to protect you.

There is no amount of yoga that will allow you to feel better if you have an eviction notice on your door or are at risk of losing your job. There is no amount of positive thinking that can make a toxic work environment okay or an abusive relationship acceptable. Security gives you that tangible feeling of nothing bad is going to happen today. It reminds you of that moment from childhood where your soul felt free enough to smile from ear to ear – the moments in your life that felt like nothing could go wrong. When your brain gets to rest from a threat you have the capacity to focus on other areas of your life. Security is paramount to move from surviving to thriving.


After restoring the element of your physical health, safety, and security it is time to add in the sustaining energy force of intimacy