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  • Writer's pictureJulie Lee

Trauma Response: How to Recognise & Manage the Survival Instinct

trauma, trauma recovery, trauma symptoms
How to Recognise & Manage the Survival Instinct

Have you ever heard of your survival instinct or your fight, flight, and freeze response? When life gets chaotic, or we go through tough or traumatic times, we often enter what's called "survival mode." You might have heard about it before, but do you really know what it means?

When we face challenges, our brain shifts gears. It's important to recognise that our survival instinct kicks in not just when we're in real danger, but even when we just perceive danger. Our brain doesn’t always tell the difference – it just reacts.

Here’s a bit of brain science for you. Our prefrontal cortex, or our logical left brain, handles problem-solving, organisation, critical thinking, decision-making, and all that good stuff. It's the part of our brain that helps us think things through logically. When we're calm and feel safe, our thinking brain does its job, processing situations and coming up with well-thought-out responses.

But when we encounter challenging situations or trauma, everything changes. Our thinking brain goes offline, and our right brain takes over. The right brain is where our creativity and emotions live, but it's also where our survival instinct kicks in. When this happens, we can’t access our left-brain logic effectively. Our survival brain reacts impulsively to keep us safe, telling us there's no time to think things through. This instinct is all about immediate survival, but it can make everything feel much harder.

It's helpful to know when your survival instinct has kicked in. Here are some signs to watch for:

  1. Lack of focus: Things might seem foggy, and it can be hard to concentrate. You might struggle to finish tasks or stay focused like you usually do.

  2. Changes in memory: You might have trouble remembering things that happen throughout the day. If someone asks how your day was, you might not really know. Memories can feel fragmented.

  3. Exhaustion: You might feel more tired, both in body and mind.

  4. Emotional reactivity: If you’re more upset by things that wouldn’t usually bother you, this can be a sign. You might feel angry, overwhelmed, or tearful.

  5. Forgetting basic self-care: Struggling to brush your teeth, exercise, wash your face, or change your sheets? These can all be signs.

  6. More impulsive: You might spend excessively, eat more, or engage in activities you wouldn’t normally.

For kids, survival mode can look a bit different. Some signs that your child might be experiencing trauma reactions include:

  1. Emotional reactivity: Increased emotional expression or dysregulation, like crying often, aggression, yelling, or depression.

  2. Withdrawal or isolation: Not doing activities that bring them joy or having difficulty engaging with others.

  3. Trouble trusting others: Lying, stealing, or keeping secrets.

  4. Jumpy: More reactive and on edge.

  5. Zoning out: Losing focus, not hearing when called, or seeming like they’re in a different world, dissociated.

If you see yourself or your child in some, or all of these signs, you’re not alone. Many people are living in survival mode more than usual these days. Trauma isn't defined by a specific incident. It doesn’t have to be related to an accident, war, or assault. Anyone can be traumatised by anything. It's about the impact an experience has on you, not the experience itself. If something significantly affects your well-being pervasively over a long period of time, it’s likely to be trauma.

Some things that can cause trauma include:

  • Changes to routine

  • Disruption of school

  • Disconnection from friends and family

  • Loss of loved ones

  • Relationship breakdown

  • Assault/accidents

  • Emotions related to news and world events

  • Experiences with racism

  • Bullying

  • Financial uncertainty

The good news is, things can change. If you're feeling the impacts of survival mode but it's manageable, there are things you can do. Be gentle and kind to yourself. You’re not doing anything wrong, you’re doing enough, and you’re not failing. You’re having a normal physiological response to an abnormal situation. Here are some tips:

  • Move your body: Exercise can help release energy and endorphins. Choose something you enjoy.

  • Reach out for support: We need people around us. Find someone who will listen and support you without trying to fix things. Call a friend, facetime, or take a walk together.

  • Practice grounding techniques: When anxious, try deep, slow breaths for 60 seconds. Notice your surroundings – pick out three things you see, two things you hear, and one thing you can smell. Splash water on your face or hold an ice cube – it works!

  • Prioritise self-care basics: Get enough sleep, eat well, take care of yourself, and find small things you enjoy.

Recovering from trauma takes time and effort, but the healing process can be rewarding. If your symptoms persist for months, reach out for support. You don’t have to do this alone.

If you'd like support working through your trauma, you can get in touch via my website:




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