Often moms get in survival mode and find it hard to get out. Or even more urgently, find it hard to take care of the kids in the day to day. Here are strategies plus some encouragement for the emotionally exhausted mom.
I remember the day clearly. Walking into the kitchen, I saw a dirty pile of dishes stacked near the sink.
I stopped, stared at the pile that seemed high as Mt. Everest, and begin having an immediate panic attack.
Then, I left the kitchen, ran to the bedroom, and threw myself down on the bed sobbing.
I could.not.do. One More Thing.
The thought of having to do a 15 minute household chore was enough to keep me on the bed crying for two hours. It was intense, it was exaggerated, but it was very real.
It was also my first indication of where I was living in that season of my life. I was a burnt out stay at home mom and I was in…
- pinpoint an issue
- draw out how it’s affecting you
- label what you don’t like about it
- determine areas of responsibility
- figure out how it’s showing up
- say what you’d rather happen
- brainstorm solutions
So what is survival mode? Let’s look at the meaning…
Let’s draw an illustration together.
Imagine a cart full of neatly stacked juicy red apples.
Then imagine that the cart gets tipped sideways and those neatly stacked apples begin tumbling out onto the ground.
Of course, you want to get those apples back on the cart and clean up the mess.
So you begin to pick up the fallen apples and put them back on the cart, but – since the cart is still leaning sideways – as soon as you put an apple back, another one falls to the ground in its place.
So now, instead of pushing the cart to your destination and humming happily, you’re frantically trying to get all the rogue apples back into the cart.
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This is the meaning of survival mode.
Previously you had energy for other things.
Now, all your energy goes to trying to get those renegade apples back on the lopsided cart without another avalanche.
It is exhausting – one step forward three steps back – and leaves little time to do the other things in life for which you previously had both the energy and the capacity.
So what is the answer?
To get the cart right side up.
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How To Know If You’re Living In Survival Mode Mentality (And How To Get Out)
Survival mode can be physical, emotional, mental and practical.
It is when you are doing just enough to keep life going and, in order to stay afloat, you have to let many other important areas of life slip by the wayside just to have the energy to stay above water.
Survival mode is dangerous in many ways and, while it can’t be avoided sometimes, we should attempt to get out of it as quick as we can by striking at the root.
How can we go forward from here?
Questions To Ask Yourself If You’re In Survival Mode… Unraveling It All
While you’re in it, things seem so confusing and overwhelming.
You might be depressed.
But you are absolutely over it all.
1. What Exactly Is Happening To Keep You Here?
Ask yourself the following questions.
- When did this feeling start?
- Was it a rapid decline or a gradual slope?
- What could have triggered survival mode?
- Is the whole family in survival mode or just me?
- Is this a season that is likely to pass soon? (Like pregnancy, a move, life transition)
- Do I feel on the verge of a “nervous breakdown” at times?
Sometimes all it takes is us asking ourselves a few honest questions, and then giving ourselves honest answers, and we can determine why it is we’re feeling how we’re feeling.
2. Have I made major stressful events in my life recently?
According to a counselor who helped me through a big period of Survival Mode in my life, some of life’s most stressful events include:
- moving house
- becoming a parent
- moving overseas
- being pregnant
- loss of a loved one (including miscarriage)
- health crisis
If you’ve experienced one of these recently, particularly if you’ve experienced a few together… it is no wonder you are in survival mode.
When I was in bed weeping over the dishes I started evaluating what the past 3 years of my life had looked like. In that time I’d gotten married, moved houses 3 times, immigrated overseas, had a baby, and was now pregnant again…
I was lucky I had my hair.
And as this picture depicts, time does not really heal all wounds, it just patches them up so we can keep moving. When we’re in survival mode we keep moving with gaping wounds.
When we want to get out of survival mode, we have to stop patching up and start healing.
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3. Am I Trying to Tip the Cart Back Upright Or Am I Picking Up Individual Fallen Apples?
To think about the concept of survival mode a bit deeper… think about a tree’s root system.
If your tree is planted in bad soil then the fruit will be no good. You can pick all the rotten fruit off the tree you want, but it still won’t produce good fruit because the soil is bad.
To get good fruit, the roots need to be accessing good soil, or soil with the nutrients needed to give life to the plant.
Dealing with only the symptoms of your problems (crying at the dishes) will mean you’re running around like a manic gardener pulling bad fruit off the tree, but never actually dealing with bottom line: that a tree without access to good soil will never thrive.
What this means practically is finding ways to cope in the “now” as you work to meet the deeper needs that are keeping you in survival mode.
In a few short years I’d given up many of the ways I used to cope and relax because I simply didn’t prioritize them. I didn’t know that dropping a few of my previous habits would actually put my mental health in jeopardy.
After all, I was just busy taking care of my family.
I decided to stop wasting my time putting fallen apples back on a tipped cart. Instead, I dug deep trying to figure out how to strengthen my muscles and turn the cart upright again.
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4. Am I Giving Myself Time and Space to Heal?
Part of getting out of survival mode means having time to yourself. So many things go by the wayside when you’re focusing on keeping your kids, your house, your relationships or your career afloat.
When you’re so busy trying to do one thing you often let other things go, even things high up on your priority list.
If you are in financial trouble and are battling to just pay the mortgage so the house doesn’t get foreclosed, you’ll become stressed and relationships and friendships may suffer.
All your emotional and mental energy will go into fixing this problem and the stress will start to consume you. When stress begins to consume us we stop sleeping. But sleep is the #1 way to reduce stress.
Taking time away while we’re trying to sort things out is vital.
What matters is that you prioritize and make happen some time to be alone and get cracking on a plan to tip back the cart and re-stack the apples.
Practical Coping Strategies for Survival Mode
- Whatever it costs you, get as much rest as possible. Lack of sleep increases stress exponentially.
- Adjust your expectations. Pregnancy is a season of life that will not last forever so banish the mommy guilt and just do what you must to get by.
- Lock yourself and the kids in a safe room. Yes, I said that. Take the kids into a room with toys and lay down while they play. This means you aren’t chasing anyone around the house and you can rest your weary body.
- Ask, trade, or beg for help. Even a few hours to lay down and nap during the day will make a big difference. Ask older ladies in your church for help, you’ll be surprised how willing they are to lend a hand. If you can, hire a mother’s helper.
General Mom Weariness
- Learn to take better care of yourself. This isn’t selfish, it’s sane. I’ve created a whole self-care guide to help moms get back on track that you can check out here.
- Slow down your life. This may mean cancelling kids’ activities or finding someone else to chauffeur. Take yourself out of commitments, responsibilities outside the home, and false standards you’ve put on yourself to “be involved” in everything. Limit activities per week vigilantly and just stay at home.
- Take a 48 hour mommy vacation if you’re able. It doesn’t have to cost a lot.
- Read this NYT bestselling book called Say Goodbye To Survival Mode and put it into practice. You won’t be sorry.
Relationship Stresses and Struggles
- Find a few trusted confidantes that are trustworthy and godly and share your heart with them.
- Get counseling for hurts you’re hanging onto that it’s time to shed. There will be a wide range of options from people in your church to professionals, but getting an outside perspective can help you move forward.
- Read Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life and be amazed at what a difference it makes with friendships, family, and your marriage.
- Do my Overcoming Overwhelm Guide which will help you focus on a few key areas that are bringing you down so you can go forward in freedom.
- Toss, organize, and downsize ruthlessly if clutter and mess is a problem. Consider reading the wildly popular The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up.
- Do a house walk and let some easy quick wins help you to feel a bit more in control and on top of home issues.
- Lower your expectations and develop realistic ones about what your home will look like during this season.
- Hire out if possible. Get a mother’s helper, nanny, cleaner, or laundry helper. Know that this money will be well spent.
- Do some quick projects to help keep you on top of these things that are piling up.
In just 15 minutes a night (while you’re in your pajamas!) take your home (and heart and mind) from stressed out to organized.
Don’t end the day with anxiety, stress, and a full mind.
This evening brain dump journal sheet will help you get in a peaceful mindset so you too can sleep peacefully through the night.
Some situations can seem impossible to get out of, and perhaps for the moment they may be.
However, with some clear thinking, a plan for support, and hope for your apple cart, you can move in the right direction.
Sometimes surviving the day is our Big Goal, and that’s okay.
For a time.
But if that day turns into a week then into a month then a year… your mental and emotional health will seriously suffer.