< Back to all blogs
How to Get Out of Survival Mode from Childhood Trauma
October 15, 2022
Introduction: How to Get Out of Survival Mode from Childhood Trauma
Many people who experienced childhood trauma find themselves in a state of survival mode later in life. This can be a result of the trauma itself or of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Survival mode is a way of coping with the world that is often characterized by hypervigilance, anxiety, and avoidance. It can be difficult to break out of this state of mind, but it is possible with effort and support. So how to get out of survival mode from childhood trauma?
In this article, we’ll define childhood trauma and discuss how it affects adults later on. Then, we’ll touch upon how survival mode manifests and how to stop living in survival mode
Defining Childhood Trauma
Trauma can be defined as any event that threatens a person’s sense of safety and well-being and can include things like abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, or losing a loved one. Children often adapt unhealthy survival strategies in order to feel safe (e.g., making themselves smaller so as to not bother their abusive parents). As such, they may struggle to develop healthy coping mechanisms. This can lead to problems with mental and physical health later on in life.
How Childhood Trauma Affects Adults
Childhood trauma can have a profound and lasting effect on adults. The physical and emotional scars of trauma can lead to chronic health problems, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Trauma can also cause people to feel disconnected from others and the world around them. Put differently, childhood trauma may lead to problems with trust, intimacy, and relationships.
Essentially, trauma affects our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. More specifically, trauma can affect the way we think and feel about ourselves. Often, people with childhood trauma have low self-esteem, a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, and even suicidal thoughts. Moreover, feelings of shame and guilt are also common. Other feelings that people with childhood trauma experience include fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger. In addition to feelings, trauma can also affect our behaviors. For example, many people with a history of childhood trauma might engage in self-destructive behaviors such as self-harm, addiction, and other issues.
Changes in the Brain
When children experience traumatic events, their brains are changed in ways that can have an impact throughout their lives. Trauma affects the structure and functions of the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex Is responsible for things like decision-making, emotional regulation, executive problem solving, organization, and planning. In simple terms, this is the “logical” part of our brain. Under the stress of trauma, the activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases. This is known as hypofrontality, and it’s linked to problems with attention, impulsivity, and aggression.
Moreover, the activity in the amygdala typically increases as the activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for processing emotions, storing fear memories, and stress detection. It is also responsible for fight-or-flight response. Thus, when this response is activated for too long due to trauma, it can lead to symptoms like anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and hypervigilance.
Lastly, trauma can also affect the hippocampus which is the area associated with memory and concentration. People who have experienced trauma may have difficulty remembering details of the event or may have trouble concentrating on tasks. The good news is that the brain is resilient and with treatment, people can recover from the effects of trauma.
Symptoms of Childhood Trauma
Often, we may doubt whether our experiences in our childhood were really that bad. Even if we experience the symptoms described above, we may consider downplaying the severity of it. However, if you had a relationship with your caregiver(s) that was freighting and/or unpredictable, it is likely you experienced much childhood trauma. Consider whether you experienced the following:
- Neglect or abuse (physical, verbal, sexual)
- Exposure to domestic violence
- Lack of support from caregiver after facing severe stress (e.g. exposure to other trauma or bullying)
- Lack of stability due to caregiver experiencing an untreated mental illness or addiction
If you had experiences like those described above, it is likely you have trauma and may have even developed Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). C-PTSD is a type of post-trauma disorder that can develop after exposure to prolonged or repeated trauma. It appears in adulthood as the following:
- Cognitive distortions: Inaccurate beliefs about the world, others, and oneself
- Emotional difficulties: Feelings like anxiety, depression, loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, and shame
- Uncomfortable somatic sensations: Physical symptoms like frequent stomach aches and headaches
- Avoidance: Shutting out distressing emotions or memories by denying them or disassociating
When we experience trauma, our brain goes into survival mode. This is a natural response that helps us to survive in the face of danger. Survival mode is characterized by a number of changes in the way we think, feel, and behave. Such changes include being constantly on the lookout for danger and ready to fight or flee at a moment’s notice. These changes are designed to help us to protect ourselves from further harm and to increase our chances of survival.
Survival mode can manifest in many ways, such as being easily startled, being hypervigilant, having difficulty concentrating, and being easily angered. Unfortunately, when we experience trauma, our body becomes stuck in survival mode, even when we are not in danger. When we are in survival mode, it is difficult for us to relax and heal from our trauma.
Symptoms of Survival Brain
If you have experienced trauma but are unsure whether you continue to function in survival mode, consider whether you experience the following:
- Difficulty focusing (e.g., finding it harder than usual to start or finish an activity)
- Memory issues
- Foggy brain
- Reacting solely based off emotions rather than responding with thought
- Neglecting yourself (e.g., basic needs like brushing your teeth and eating)
- Impulsivity (e.g., excessive spending and eating, etc.)
It’s important to note that in children, survival mode looks different. For example, children may have increased emotional dysregulation (e.g., crying more often, yelling, and being aggressive), withdraw from others, zone out, and be more jumpy.
The Cycle of Trauma and Survival Mode
Why is it important to heal from trauma? Why is it important to get out of survival mode and begin to live fulfilling, happy lives? It’s important because everyone deserves to have a life they enjoy. Additionally, when one experiences trauma, they are often not the only ones affected. Their loved ones may also feel pain seeing them struggle with their mental health. Moreover, one can ever pass down trauma.
When one experiences a trauma like abuse, it becomes more likely that they pass down that trauma to their future generations. Essentially, they perpetuate trauma through learned behaviors because it is all their body and mind have ever known. Hence, if one has unhealed trauma wounds, they may pass down this struggle. This cycle of trauma is often referred to as “intergenerational trauma.” It occurs when the children of trauma survivors experience their own traumas, which can be either similar or different to the experiences of their parents.
Intergenerational trauma is a complex issue, but understanding it is critical to helping break the cycle. With the right support, people who have experienced intergenerational trauma can heal and lead healthy, fulfilling lives.
Getting Out of Survival Mode: Steps to Heal from Childhood Trauma
To reiterate, survival mode is the feeling of being in a constant state of stress, anxiety, and fear. For some, it’s a way of life. If you’re stuck in survival mode from childhood trauma, it can feel like there’s no way out. It can feel like it is too difficult to heal both physically and emotionally. But there are steps you can take to start feeling better. With time and effort, it is possible to heal the wounds of your past and move on with your life. Here are some steps to help you get out of survival mode and start healing:
- Acknowledge that you’re in survival mode. This is the first and most important step. If you don’t acknowledge that you’re in a state of stress, anxiety, and fear, you’ll never be able to move past it.
- Get support. If you can, seek out the support of friends and family or a counselor or therapist who can help you work through your feelings. A therapist may take a variety of approaches including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR), exposure therapy, mindfulness, mind-body therapies, relaxation techniques, and positive psychology. A therapist will make the choice with your input based upon your needs and wants.
- Support yourself by being gentle and kind. Validate your feelings and understand that this experience is normal but not permanent.
- Consider journaling to help process your feelings relating to your trauma.
- Practice grounding exercises like deep breathing and connecting to your senses. One way to do this is to hold an ice cube. This serves like a reset for your nervous system and can help calm you down.
- Prioritize taking care of yourself over everything else. This means getting enough sleep, eating enough, and doing things you enjoy.
- Love and move your body. Therapeutic yoga has been found to be effective in helping one heal from trauma.
Conclusion: How to Get Out of Survival Mode from Childhood Trauma
In conclusion, if you are stuck in survival mode from childhood trauma, there are ways to get out. Talk to a therapist, take care of yourself, and practice grounding and relaxation exercises. Be patient with yourself and don’t give up. With time and effort, you can heal the traumas of your past. You deserve to take care of yourself and live a happy, fulfilling life. Know that you will get there with time.