How to Quit Living in Survival Mode

Are you operating in “survival mode”? Does every day feel like you’re just trying to keep your head above water?

Many of us—myself included—have lived far too much of our lives just trying to make it through another day.

It’s like we’ve been thrown into the ocean and we’re fighting desperately to keep from drowning. 

You don’t know how to swim, and you can barely tread water. 

You’re close to going under for the last time while those around you are wearing life jackets, exerting no energy at all to stay afloat. 

You can’t even think about trying to get to shore because all your efforts are going toward simply surviving.

Others appear to be thriving and are making steady progress toward their goal—the beach and the safety it offers. 

You’re terrified that at any moment a huge wave could engulf you, taking you under and sealing your demise.

You can only dream about what it would be like to float effortlessly on top of the water like you see others doing.

It doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? 

Yet, that’s exactly how I’ve lived much of my adult life; maybe you have, too. Each day, I’ve spent my time and energy dealing with the demands and trials of life, waiting for my real life to begin.

That’s right—most days I’ve felt like this wasn’t my “real life”; it was more of a “starter life”—a warm-up to the real thing that I would begin someday when everything fell into place.

You know what I mean. The wonderful, awesome life I’d experience every day when I had more money than I needed, when there were no problems that required my attention, when virtually every moment of every day was as close to perfect as it could be. 

I have believed that that is when my life would begin. 

This fantasy has staked a hold in my brain for decades now. Here I am in my 50s and I’m still waiting for “real life” to begin. For everything to be exactly the way I think it should be. For there to be joy inexpressible every day without any effort on my part.

So far, none of that has happened.

I don’t believe we were put on this earth merely to survive—just to squeak by with no real progress toward anything of significance. 

So, what is the answer to this game of survival that characterizes so many people’s lives?

I certainly don’t have all the answers. If I did, then I wouldn’t have spent so many of my years as described above. 

I believe that to overcome living in survival mode we must take a step back and take a hard look at our lives. We must make a mental shift—doing it daily or even hourly if need be—to see ourselves as living our true lives now.

Life is not about to begin—we certainly don’t have any promises about the future.

Life is the here and now. Today. This hour and this moment. Every minute builds on the one just before it, so if we want to experience all that life offers, we have to live purposefully in the moment. 

We must realize that we have nothing else. The past is history. The future is not guaranteed. This very moment is all we have. 

Make this moment count, so that the next moment is even better.

Take what you have and make it the very best it can be—whether you have the metaphorical life jacket on or not. 

Life doesn’t treat everyone the same way. Some are born with advantages that others can never even dream about. 

It is up to us to use what we have to the best of our ability, realizing that even if we don’t hit every goal, we’ll still be better off than when we started because we did our best every moment of every day.

We have just one life. We must make the most of it every moment of every day.

Reframing How You See Your Life

Too many people struggle with depression and anxiety on a daily basis—and I’m one of those people. One approach that I have used from time to time to help eliminate my worry and anxiety over the future is to completely reframe my thinking regarding it and the past.

By nature, I have always held onto the past. It’s where I’m most comfortable because it’s a known. The future is unknown of course. By thinking about the past and dwelling on the past I’m able to keep my mind in a more comfortable, secure place.

However, we don’t live in the past. We only live in the here-and-now, with the future to look forward to. So, by living in the past in my mind, I’m actually creating more anxiety for myself. What happens now is that I see my “true” life as that which I had before I left home for college. That’s the point at which one major phase of my life ended and another began.

Therefore, in my mind, all the events that have happened since I left home are cataloged as leading away from that anchor point. 

Let me explain it this way. It’s as if I’m wading into the ocean backwards with my eye on the shoreline that is getting ever farther away. My childhood is represented as my walk down the beach until I reach the edge of the water. 

Everything after that (adulthood) is represented by my wading into the water. The longer I live, the farther I get away from the shore with its supposed safety and the more treacherous my journey becomes. 

Slowly but surely, I’m wading backward out into deeper waters, getting closer to the point where I’m completely underwater. My focus is not on the direction I’m headed, but rather it’s always on the shore.

Each day of my adult life is seen as a crisis—it’s not my real life because that ended at childhood when I began wading into the water. The crisis is heightening day by day as I get deeper and deeper. There is no real living in this scenario—just survival for as long as Ican.

As you can imagine, this way of thinking makes for a very anxious kind of life.

However, by reframing my way of thinking, I can see my life in a whole different light. If I create a different schema to catalog my experience, then everything is flipped 180 degrees. If I see each new day as the beginning of the rest of my life, and all the events that come afterward as just a long extension of my real life, then a great deal of worry, fear, and anxiety is eliminated.

I have to tell myself, “My life is here and now. Everything else is in the past. This is my life, along with everything that I experience from this point on.”

But the real key is to see my life this way. I have to keep in mind the image that the past is all behind me and that the future is a great, wide road in front of me, representing all the potential that life holds.

Creating this image in my head helps me see my life completely differently. Instead of ruminating on the past and fretting because each day takes me further away from its “safety,” I’m instead focused on the future and making each day count for something. I can look forward to each day instead of being anxious because life has taken me so far from my past.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells his readers that he uses that same approach:

“…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”

Phil. 3:13b

It’s good to learn from the past, but not so good if you live in the past. As the motivational saying goes, “Remember the lesson, but forget the details.”

Living in the past cripples you and makes you totally ineffective for you present life. Plus, you end up fearing the future because your mind is conditioned to crave the apparent security of the past. 

That security is all a lie, however. The past has no real power, only that which you allow it to have. The present and the future are where life is truly lived.