Survival School

I’m in survival mode at school right now.

And that little prepositional phrase, “at school” is so much more important than its brevity and simplicity suggests.

You see, six years ago, that sentence would not have ended with that phrase even though school was the source of the stress. Because survival mode in one area of my life unerringly expanded to be survival mode in all areas of my life. Stress at work blossomed and grew, filling every crevice of my life. In times of intensity at school, I brought both literal and figurative work home with me every night and double on the weekends.

There were no boundaries.

I learned something about survival mode during the year of tear-stained cheeks. I was unwittingly enrolled in a survival boot camp that year, as I was literally fighting to regain some sort of life again in the midst of madness.I discovered that even though I could not entirely avoid situations that called for survival mode, I could limit their influence.

I could set boundaries.

Survival mode happens to us all. It is characterized by periods of overwhelming intensity that require that your world shrink to accommodate the demands of the stressor. Survival mode can be triggered by something as happy as the birth of a baby and the lack of sleep collides with immense responsibility and never-ending need. It can come on the heels of a loss, a death or divorce wiping out any sense of normalcy and the trauma short-circuiting any coping mechanisms.

Or, as with my current state of survival, it can come as a perfect storm of factors. In this case, two weeks of being drained by the flu combined with crazy deadlines at work and a lack of planning time coinciding with my husband being out-of-town and a stretch where Atlanta was impersonating a Seattle winter, collided to create a maelstrom of stress.

So at work right now I’m in complete survival mode. My blinders are on, my head is down. I’m just focused on trying to get it done without neglecting to breathe in the meantime. But apart from one cryfest on the way home from work on Tuesday (of which there is thankfully no footage) and some sleep interrupted by anxiety-fueled dreams, the survivor mode has been confined within the walls of the school.

The boundaries are holding.

Here is some of what I learned in survivor school. Maybe it can help you next time you find yourself in survival mode.

A Space For Everything

Compartmentalize. And then compartmentalize some more. Just because things are falling apart in one area of your life, doesn’t mean it’s all bad. It’s easy to believe that if we blur the lines and give whatever the stressor is more energy, more time that we will be able to chip away at it. But the truth is that most of the time, allowing to spread only poisons other areas and doesn’t really help the original issue. When you’re in it, be in it. But also allow yourself moments away. Give yourself the gift of respite.

Institute a Catastrophizing Ban

It may suck, but it’s rarely as bad as we make it seem when we’re overwhelmed and under-rested. Take a step back. Breathe. Identify and take one step at a time. And make sure to celebrate any progress you make. Remember that it may be the world’s biggest molehill, but it’s still not a mountain.

To Thine Own Self Be Kind

Allow yourself a good cry. Pamper yourself with a moment alone or a special treat. Prioritize sleep; its lack makes everything harder. Don’t be too scared to ask for help or too proud to receive it. If you’re physically able, get up and move. Go outside. Peek at the stars. They have a way of putting everything in perspective.

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Let the Little Things Go

When you’re in survival mode, your world has to temporarily shrink down to the necessities. It’s okay to neglect non-essentials so that you can focus on what is critical. And you define what is critical. For me this past week, critical has meant time to read in bed with Tiger curled up by side. And to make that happen, I ignored tasks around the house.

In survival mode, you’re not going for perfection, you’re working on making it until the next day. And as long as you do that, call it a success.

See the Light

Survival situations don’t persist forever; don’t let your survival mode become a way of living. Recognize when the pressures lift and expand your world again.

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