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  • Writer's pictureashleysmckenna

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 and connection. You are meant to connect with people and build relationships.

When you can connect with people you learn about yourself and can see yourself from a different view. When you were a child, you saw yourself through the eyes of the adults around you and created beliefs about yourself based on the beliefs they had about you.

You became the child your parents saw for better or worse. Feeling a connection and a sense of belonging starts or stops in your family, elementary school, and community. If you make it through adolescence with trustworthy relationships, this sense of belonging can remain intact.

To find your people is not a race to the finish line. It is a slow dance to build reliable relationships over time. Relationships of significance should take years to form. You must put on your emotional caution lights as you proceed in creating a new relationship. To avoid the fall of jumping without a protective parachute, you need to work on developing the relationship and see the progress over time. Each engagement gives you more information about whether a new person gets the privilege of getting to know who you are. Love and connection are vital nutritional sources that the human life force craves. It’s the emotional spinach of the heart. You must find the bravery to reach out to others and say hello to someone you see who gives you a good feeling. By building your friends, family, and intimate relationships, you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and who you are in the world.

Esteem and Self-Confidence

To figure out how to understand yourself is a big part of developing self-confidence. The way you feel, think, and behave gives you the knowledge to make strong choices in your best interest regardless of negative feedback. What are the things you like? What are the things that regulate you? The things that make you feel better are an exploratory process. You need to do some trial and error in exploring this process. Do you really like gardening? Try it. If it is amazing, do it again. If it is horrible, let it go. Create your own decision tree of life.

Self-confidence and self-esteem create a foundation for you to master your life. They let you move past the imposter syndrome and feel secure in your thoughts and beliefs. You can evaluate your self-worth measured by your own experiences in life.

By knowing yourself, you can practice the concepts of changing how you live to build healthy coping skills. As you feel an increased level of confidence, you can give yourself permission to feel desire, creativity, and passion. As you make choices with your emotions as your guide, you will grow in your ability to feel the rewards of life. A new thought structure of believing in yourself says, “You are worth it,” and, “You are good enough.”


The core of who you are is built by meeting your basic needs, and your core allows you to get to a state of mindfulness and true self-care. Self-reflection helps you grow and nurture your life experiences. It is here where you have the resources to thrive. You have the power to build a life and make choices that fully support your core existence. You can explore your personal meaning, fulfillment, and purpose in life. You can put yourself in a place to give back to the community through your talents.

Self-Care Plan

Daily Restorative Self-Care Plan

Answer these questions at the start of each day.

  • “What do I need to maintain my physical health?”

  • “What do I need to feel safe?”

  • “How can I connect to others?”

  • “What makes me feel good?”

  • “How do I want to grow?”

  • “What do I need right now?”

Working through the stages of human development is like working through a set of goals. You must complete each stage before moving on to the next. Sometimes, you will get sent back to the beginning a

nd must work the stages again with everything you learned.


Self-Care Plan Wild Magnolia Wellness
Download PDF • 238KB

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