Two years of battling severe illness alongside my daughter had attuned me to her every move, especially in the night. Any noise would startle me out of a deep sleep and have me running down the hall before I was even fully awake. She might have been getting a drink of water, yet I jolted out of bed with the immediate assumption we were on our way to the emergency room. I developed bionic ears and over time a leaf falling outside my window seemed enough to have me outside her bedroom door checking on her. I often had difficulty falling asleep, my body already in preparation to “fight” whatever battle the night would bring.
If you’re here, though our circumstances may be different, I’m guessing you understand. Perhaps you shudder at the thought of the next tantrum or call from the school. Maybe your body is on immediate alert when you notice your child’s anxiety rising, or you physically recoil when you feel rejected once again. You are “tuned in” to your child in a heightened way, reading every cue, so as to anticipate what might happen next. You’re probably exhausted and always “bracing yourself” for the worst.
My training in trauma and neuroscience came in handy as a mom going through hard things, yet it still took me a lot of conscious practice to begin to change the survival patterns that were developing within me.
I hope having a deeper understanding of what is happening within you at a neurological and physical level can help you, too. It’s not your fault how your body is reacting. With growing understanding and some new tools, it is possible to take steps to shift out of constant survival mode. Let’s start with WHY we are reacting this way:
Imagine stepping outside and you see a tiger.
It notices you, fully turns towards you, and begins to growl.
Immediately your brain moves into “survival” mode. Your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, digestion shuts down to conserve energy, and your body floods with adrenaline and other stress related hormones. Your body is readying you to fight, run to escape, freeze in hopes the tiger won’t notice you, or play nice to appease it.
Survival mode is not a conscious decision. In a split second the “downstairs” part of the brain, which includes the amygdala, simply takes over.
Your brain is designed to protect you. When you feel unsafe, a fear based reaction will take the form of “Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn,” allowing for the best chance of survival.
Theoretically, once the situation ends and hopefully you’re ok, your body would shift back to a regulated state. The “upstairs” portion of the brain would then take over again allowing for “higher level” thinking and executive functioning to resume.
You would physiologically return to a state of “rest and digest” and go on with life.
But what if that tiger came back again? And then again? What if every day as you prepared to open your front door, you weren’t sure if the tiger would be there?
Every noise now has you wondering if the tiger is waiting for you.
Even though you try to relax, your body constantly feels on edge as you anticipate “what if” the tiger shows up again.
Over time, our brains adjust to ongoing stressors by re-wiring accordingly. Survival mode can become our baseline.
Many parents dealing with difficult circumstances live with the ongoing threat of the visiting tiger. Daily uncertainty places them constantly in the “downstairs” portion of their brains.
It can take a true toll both physically, mentally, and emotionally. Our body was not intended to function in survival mode for prolonged periods of time; and in that sense, we can get “stuck.”
Thoughts, feelings, and subsequently behaviors, are influenced by which part of the brain is in charge.
Here are some clues your “downstairs” brain (survival mode) is activated :
1. You find yourself assuming the worst case scenario.
Fact: This part of the brain is designed to anticipate the worst case scenario. If you walk outside and see a tiger, in order to survive, the brain must assume the tiger is hungry and looking for its next meal. You may find yourself reacting in a manner that is fear-based and assumes the worst.
2. You find yourself constantly worrying.
Fact: The “downstairs” brain’s favorite question is “What if?” This is a necessary question when one encounters a tiger. In order to keep you safe, the downstairs brain is always scanning the environment and assessing and reassessing: “What if it attacks? What if I can’t outrun it? What if it turns to the left instead of the right?” By design, the survival brain is always “What-iff-ing.”
3. You find yourself emotionally overreacting.
Fact: When you’re not in the heat of the moment, you may be able to recognize that small things are triggering big emotions in you. You know it was a “kitten” but you reacted as if it was a “tiger.” When we are in survival mode we can have difficulty regulating our emotions and our reactions do not always match the actual situation. We begin to perceive things through our tiger striped lenses. The “downstairs” brain includes the limbic region where instantaneous emotional responses occur. When our amygdala is constantly stimulated, it can become overactive. We are therefore more prone to experience a heightened emotional state. We may find ourselves quickly having an emotional reaction and later wondering why.
4. You’re exhausted, yet you have a hard time sleeping or resting.
Fact: If you had a tiger standing in front of you, would you lay down to take a nap? Would you sit down and enjoy lunch with a friend? Of course not! You would not allow yourself to “rest” and risk your survival. When the “downstairs” part of the brain is in charge we will find ourselves struggling to “settle down,” rest, or sleep. If you saw a tiger, you would keep your eye on it at all times, watching its every move so you could anticipate what to do next in order to survive. When this hypervigilant stance becomes our baseline, we struggle to rest.
There certainly can be different reasons for each of the signals listed above. It might be time to consider speaking to your doctor, especially if you haven’t been seen for a while. Remember, our goal is focusing on YOUR care, and this includes your physical well being.
One thing is for certain, it IS exhausting to be constantly concerned about a tiger. And, if the circumstances affecting your family are “tiger-like” then it is feasible that you may be exhausted from living in a constant state of hypervigilance.
This physical response was intended to be “short-lived” and then the body was designed to return to a regulated state of “rest and digest” as the baseline.
If things are highly stressful in your home, it makes complete sense why your “downstairs” brain interprets a need to be in charge all the time.
And it makes complete sense why you may be struggling to move into the “rest and digest” state of being.
Biological reactions are not your fault. With awareness, you can grow in your understanding and help yourself make needed changes.
As I use the illustration of the tiger, I want to be careful to emphasize that it is also highly important for each of us to begin to recognize that our children, themselves, are not the tigers. As parents, we must consciously work to separate the personhood of our child from that which is triggering us. Every human is a precious image bearer designed by God to be delighted in.
Our children, too, are facing their own tigers. My daughter was not the tiger. Her illness was.
Becoming more aware with you,
PS. Read about 2 starting steps you can take to begin to make changes: 2 STARTING STEPS TO LEAVE PARENTAL SURVIVAL MODE