I wanted to make this post for Pain Awareness Month because it is something that affected my life severely. Survival mode is something we deal with having chronic pain. It is that push through pain mode. It is that crawling through life by inches pain mode. When we get stuck in it, it can be very destructive.

Survival mode is not meant to be lived in

Here are some signs of survival mode you may recognize:

  1. You are just struggling to get through the day in whatever way you can
  2. You only think about getting through the day, not planning for the next day or week. Just focused on surviving the moment.
  3. You feel hopeless and isolated because it is just a struggle to exist
  4. You are in reaction mode. Just reacting to whatever crops up
  5. You are in a constant state of high stress
  6. Your pain isn’t managed at all
  7. Literally just focused on existence to the exclusion of all else

I have been there. Hell, I lived more than a decade there. And it isn’t meant to be lived in. It is destructive in the long-term.

I had developed:

  • A lot of suicidal ideation
  • Was activity suicidal and attempted
  • I fell into a deep, dark depression
  • I felt utterly hopeless
  • It crushed my sense of self and self-worth

It is a horrific existence. I was constantly telling myself I ‘gotta get through the day’, ‘I gotta make it to the weekend’, ‘I I just push through until my neurologist appointment he will help me’. And every neurologist appointment didn’t help me. One neurologist said there was nothing more he could do for me. And I literally cried. I was going to be stuck like this forever. And that wasn’t something I could mentally, physically, or emotionally handle.

survival mode

People with chronic pain often get stuck in survival mode. It happens when we are constantly and consistently exceeding our limits. It happens when we have no pain management or not sufficient pain management. And we try to push through. We just try to exist. Until things get better. But sometimes they don’t get better. And we live in survival mode. And it destroys us mentally and emotionally.

I can say what helped me get out of survival mode. But, there is always the constant risk I will get stuck in it again. So the things I did were:

  • First, I got a new doctor since the one I had was indifferent to my suffering.
  • That new doctor sent me to the pain clinic, and the pain clinic put me on pain killers (200mg of slow release Tramadol), as well as doing Botox. And taught me some physio exercises to do. And I started an exercise protocol (which I can only do when not working and certainly not now with the vertigo, but it helped a bit when not working). Picked up mindful meditation as well.
  • I saw the pain psychologist at the pain clinic for about a year which helped me cognitively deal with the constant negative thoughts I was having
  • I saw their psychiatrist and he suggested a depression med. I have issues with anti-depressants as they worsen my depression and suicidal thoughts. So I was put on Abilify.
  • I had to give up my career and work part-time. As full-time was exceeding my pain limits. Part-time was also extremely difficult, but at least I had some income. That is until the vertigo hit and hasn’t gone away. So even part time I missed too much work and went on too many leaves.

And all that was over the course of about two years of consistent effort to finally get out of survival mode. And certainly to treat the depression that went with it. And this very well may not be your plan of action. Your way out may be entirely different. What I do know is that change is needed when we are stuck like this. A massive amount of change. And the way out… it can’t be seen from the start. The only way to get through hell is to keep going. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to get out of if we do not have the proper medical supports in place. Also my depression made me so hopeless I couldn’t conceive of a way out. Not when chronic pain will never go away. I couldn’t grasp that all those things would help me cope with the pain that cannot be managed. So I stayed stuck for years and years. And once out you are so very aware it is a fragile state. The status quo can change in in a moment.

What is vital about this list is that all of them needed to be done. And doing one or the other would not have worked at all.

We need to re-frame our existence. Focus on what we need to do. What complicates this is that pain management is vital and these days very hard to find. But with chronic pain we have to manage the pain, we have to manage the comorbid mental illnesses, and generally we have to make compromises. And it all takes time. And in the end even when you are out of survival mode it is like you were permanently traumatized by the experience. My self-worth had tanked. I felt bruised inside. And it takes so much longer to recover your sense of self.

More posts:

Survival mode and migraine: when hell endures

Survival mode and pain management

Survival mode with chronic pain and the lack of options in society

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6 thoughts on “Survival mode is not meant to be lived in

  1. Great post, Nikki.
    I can hardly remember not being in survival mode, but in my case the exhaustion, weakness and dizziness seem worse than the pain.
    I could tough out my pain, if that was all I had. (It’s like the next day after being beaten, all over.)
    But I know the illness will not end. And my carers have all died.
    I can never take a break.
    And trying to keep my blog going, as well, feels so draining.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get where you are coming from. For me it was the pain that really, really got to me. But now it is the dizziness which is relentless. It is very difficult to manage any writing for me as well. It definitely is as severe as the pain… but functionality just tanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You have illustrated this so well, Nikki. I’ve thought of it before because I’m often waiting for that next appointment, just want to get the next hurdle out of the way, just trying to make it through the day/week/weekend, but I hadn’t thought of comparing it to survival mode vs living/long term. You’re absolutely right in that there are a lot of smaller steps that need to be done to work out of that survival mode, and it’s not easy to do, it’s pretty scary. Really great post, thank you for writing it as I’m sure many others will (sadly) be able to relate too!
    Caz xx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this. This really resonated with me as I’ve been living in survival mode and thinking it was just my normal. The new doc I just saw looked at my pain chart and said that I was not in a good place, but until I read your article, I didn’t really realize it. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really think this is an important topic for us to realize in ourselves for coping and pain management. We just endure and endure and think it just is the way it is but it really takes a severe toll on us.


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