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What Does Survival Look Like?

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“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

—Joshua 1:9 NIV

Are you in survival mode?

When the unexpected happens, we come face to face with the unknown.

We may have lost our job, or the marriage we thought would last a lifetime has just ended. Our spouse may have died unexpectedly, or we lost our best friend. It may be the death of a child or the shocking awareness that our teen is deeply involved in drugs or gangs. Or that our health is slowly deteriorating with aging.

There are a thousand ways our life can be turned inside out and upside down in the blink of an eye. At such times, we feel like a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car: paralyzed, unable to move. Shock protects us for a short time, but when it wears off, the magnitude of our circumstances hits full force.

Along with trauma, tragedies, and misfortune comes uncertainty and unpredictability.

Stress is heightened as fear and anxiety settle in. Our fight or flight response is not only activated but remains stuck in high gear. Hormones and chemicals continue to be released into our body, enabling us to run or defend ourselves.

Except we are not applying those chemicals in the way they were intended. With no appropriate way to be used, they begin to work against us.

As worry and anxiety set in, we may experience constant stomach upsets and indigestion. We have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Thoughts spin out of control and our heartbeat seems to constantly be racing.

How could this be happening?

What will I do now and how will I survive?

Feelings of anger or betrayal along with cynicism and bitterness can raise their ugly heads. Guilt, shame, and self-incrimination become the norm and the future seems bleak and hopeless. We find ourselves isolated and alone, feeling as though we are sliding down an abyss with no way to stop or slow down.

When we enter survival mode, we become hyper-vigilant to everything around us. Our mood may shift from anxiety and fear to irritability and anger. We argue with or shout at loved ones, increasing tension and stress.

Or we retreat from everyone and everything. Trying to survive, we direct our anger and fear onto others and blame everybody and everything for what is happening.

Survival mode has physical, emotional, and psychological consequences.

Stress not only robs us of sleep but continues to keep us tense and on edge. High levels of emotional stress prevent us from thinking effectively. In a constant, non-ending state of apprehension and anxiety, we enter a world that appears to be going nowhere.

Stress Helps us Adapt

We were designed to adapt to the world we live in. Stress is that adaptive ability that allows us to adjust to any new situation, whether it is enjoying the grandkids, going to work, raising our families, cheering at a football game, or responding to a threat.

If we couldn’t adapt, we wouldn’t be able to respond to life – mentally, emotionally, socially, or physically. When stress is working for us, we are motivated and energized. We can set goals, plan our careers, enjoy life, solve problems, and live life to the fullest. When it is working against us, it wears us out.

We are born with a certain amount of adaptive ability to use and make the adjustments needed. When we have used up our storehouse of adaptive ability, we don’t get any more. While we have little control over the amount we receive at birth, we do have considerable control over how we use it.

You may believe there’s nothing you can do about the unwanted stress you are experiencing. Yet we know that not everyone will react to similar circumstances the same. What might raise your levels of distress may be an energizer to somebody else. How we interpret events and situations can have a significant outcome. And we can change that interpretation.

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