Expert Blogs | Mental Health
How to Survive 'Survival Mode'
man emotionally struggling

When my phone is about to die, it goes into Low Power Mode. Some features don’t work, but it makes the battery last longer (hopefully until I can get to a charger). It’s a kind of survival mode.

We have a similar survival mode in times of crisis, like the ongoing COVID pandemic and economic upheaval. We’re just trying to hang on, till we can “make it to a charger.” In this mode we’ll often drop certain features from our lives. For example, maybe we’re consumed with trying to avoid bankruptcy, and we have little energy left for exercise or making nutritious meals, and little time for sleep. Or we might be trying to work from home while home schooling our kids for the first time, and proper self-care feels like a distant memory.

It makes sense that we go into survival mode when we feel like we’re barely making it. We have to be strategic about where we direct our resources. At the same time, our efforts to survive sometimes cut off the very things that can keep us going in the long run. If it goes on long enough, we find ourselves feeling run down. We don’t have the energy we once had, or enthusiasm for much of anything. Our sleep is disturbed. It’s hard to concentrate, or make decisions. We might even become depressed.

It’s a tough balance, trying to survive survival mode. How can we be selective about where we direct our time and energy, in a way that still somewhat resembles a well-rounded life? The answer is as much art as science, and it requires attending to the important pieces of our lives.

Below are nine elements that sustain us through the best and worst of times. With careful intention and attention, we can maintain these areas of our lives, even in very small ways. Just taking a few minutes here and there to focus on these things can be more rewarding than we might imagine.


We need moments of simple presence every day—a sense of “I am here,” with awareness of our bodies and a feeling of being centered. When we’re in survival mode, our thoughts are often directed toward the future—will we make it? Can we hold on? Do we have enough gas in the tank to reach the next filling station, so to speak?

These future-focused fears take us out of the present and transport us into an imagined world where things go badly. The more time we spend focusing on what could go wrong, the more afraid we feel and the more we guard against our frightening fantasies. But by finding ways to connect with our present experience, we can reconnect with ourselves and release some of the frantic efforts to avoid failure—which can also help prevent depression.

This simple exercise can help us find moments of pause and presence:

“I Am Here” exercise: Sit or stand comfortably in a quiet space, allowing your eyes to close. As you breathe in, silently say to yourself, “I am.” As you exhale, say to yourself, “Here.” Repeat this several times with the breath: “I am … here. I am… here.” Notice how this simple declaration can change your experience, as you affirm your place in the world. (This exercise is adapted from The CBT Deck).


Our connections to others are the lifeblood of our lives. You may need to reduce time spent with friends, but take care not to ghost entirely from their lives. Let them know what’s happening in your life and that you’ll be in touch less often for a while. Your loved ones most likely will understand. And keep in contact, like with regular text messages here and there. Even a short exchange can provide a real boost.


Spending time outside might feel like a luxury you can’t afford. But we need time in the natural world. Our bodies, minds, and spirits crave it, and research has shown countless benefits from being outdoors. Aim to get outside every day, even for a couple minutes. Open the mail outside, for example, or take a quick walk around the block. While you’re out there, put away your phone and take in your surroundings—the sky, birds, trees, the smell of the air. (Using this time to do the mindful presence exercise makes for a nice twofer.)


Consistent exercise is one of the best ways to boost our mood, lower anxiety, and discharge stress. But exercise often goes out the window in times of high stress—which is exactly when we most need it. During survival mode, don’t think of it as exercise. Just call it movement. And find any way to move your body for a few minutes at a time. Stand periodically. Get up to get a glass of water. Walk up and down the stairs. Use your body. You’re going to need it, whatever the future might bring, so invest a few minutes each day in physical activity. 


Sleep is essential for our survival, but high stress is no friend of sleep. We might cut our sleep short to try to get more done, or maybe we find that our sleep is disturbed by stress and worry. Focus on sleep quality during this time, which multiple studies have suggested is more important than quantity. Invest a few minutes easing into sleep at the end of the day. Maybe that means having relaxing conversation with your partner before bed, or doing a little reading.

I like to think of consecrating our sleep, dedicating time and space for it as a sacred activity. You can allow your sleep to be a spiritual practice of reconnecting with yourself, and an exercise in faith. Trust that you can let go of thinking and doing, and come into a mode of being. Allow the cares of the day to slip away, and know that whatever needs your attention can wait until tomorrow. Enter into sleep as a time of renewal for your mind, body, and spirit.


Like sleep, our nutrition often suffers in times of stress—which is when we actually need additional nutrients. The effects of a poor diet may not be immediately obvious, but catch up with us over time.

In general, less processed is better. Healthier foods look like the foods they came from—think baked potatoes versus French fries, or berries versus fruit leather. Also, be careful about alcohol. Relying on it to manage stress can affect not only our physical health but also our mental and emotional well-being.

If improving your diet feels daunting, aim to make one small change at a time. Replace an unhealthy snack with fruit or carrot sticks, for example. Or choose water at dinner instead of a sugary drink. Little changes are easier to make than big ones, and add up over time.


Our nervous systems are ideally suited to short bouts of stress, like sprinting to outrun a predator. Constant stress wears us down. We need periods where we can release, letting go of that constant feeling of being ON. Even short moments of relaxation can be restorative. Try this exercise to “punch out” for sixty seconds at a time, repeating as often as you like.

2-4-2 Breathing: Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Inhale gently for a count of two, and exhale for a count of four. Pause for a count of two before starting the cycle again. Work up to longer breath cycles with the same 2-4-2 ratio (e.g., 3-6-3). Slowing the breath is an effective way to calm the nervous system and lower anxiety. (This exercise is adapted from The CBT Deck for Anxiety, Rumination, and Worry.)


It can feel like we have no bandwidth to clean our living space during times of stress, so we often put it off till later. But the mess becomes its own source of stress, and adds to the feeling that our life is falling apart.

Plan to devote a few minutes at a time to tidying up. No need to go epic here or aim for perfection—five minutes is a great start. Begin with a high-use area and on improvements you’ll feel immediately. For example, put away shoes that have collected near the door. These actions send your brain a powerful signal that you’re able to take care of things.


Finally, we need to find ways to serve others, even when we’re just trying to keep our heads above water. That’s easier said than done, I know. When I was at the low point of my years-long health struggle, I was often completely self-focused. It felt like I had nothing to give anyone else, and that I had to focus on myself. But a narrowed preoccupation with ourselves is draining in its own way. We quickly grow stagnant when we’re internally focused, like a body of water without an outlet.

We may not have as much to invest in others as we would like, but we can find small ways to meet others’ needs. It might be a quick call to wish a friend a happy birthday. Or bringing your partner a glass of ice water with lemon. Even these small gestures will do the other person and yourself a big favor. 

It’s reasonable to cut down on how much we invest in these different areas when we’re focused on survival. The important thing is to attend to them on a regular basis—consistency is more important than the amount of time we spend. Even if we can’t do everything that we used to, we can do something. Our future selves will thank us.

For more quick daily practices to help manage the stress that can lead to depression, my e-guide “10 Ways to Manage Stress and Anxiety Every Day,” is available for free when you sign up for my newsletter.  




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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Clinical psychologist

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based interventions. His books include The CBT Deck and A Mindful Year (co-written with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh); he hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, featuring conversations on living more fully.

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