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Are You Highly Emotionally Reactive? You May Be Stuck in Survival Mode

Survival mode is supposed to be a phase that helps save your life. It is not meant to be how you live.” ~Michele Rosenthal

Childhood is the most cherished time for many. However, nobody gets to adulthood unscathed. We all go through incidents with our friends, family, and at school or otherwise that leave us feeling emotionally bruised or scarred.

Growing up in a household where my parents were busy raising three kids and working hard to better their economic status, somewhere along the way I felt neglected. Not that they did anything intentionally, but I was often plagued, even overwhelmed, by feelings of being misunderstood, lonely, not good enough, and generally not deserving.

It was only after years of people-pleasing, choosing a wrong master’s degree, and climbing the corporate ladder with a great job, that the suppressed feelings erupted like a volcano. The result? It made me physically sick with allergies, constant body aches, and rashes that didn’t allow me to sleep, pushing me to a complete breakdown.

That’s when I realized that my body was trying to talk to me. It had been giving me warning signs since childhood.

I used to cry a lot, and hence was called sensitive. I was often sick, and my parents called me a “weakling.” I would scream and shout or just shut down and recede into my room. Either way, they told me to not be so reactive. It became a vicious cycle of feeling overwhelmed and then hating myself for not behaving in a normal way.

Back to my breakdown in adulthood, lying on the floor sobbing, I decided that I wanted to quit my job and pursue psychology. It wasn’t an easy ride from there, but nevertheless studying this subject helped me answer why I was the way I was.

It turns out, I wasn’t overreactive or sensitive at all. I was in survival mode, and my body and mind perceived everything as a threat. My body tried to keep me safe from anything remotely different by putting me into a fight, flight, or freeze state. My mind was generally hyper vigilant of others’ moods and reactions. So, my body didn’t know how to relax, and it was exhausted over the years!

Our bodies are designed to tackle threats and then then move back into a relaxed mode. However, when our minds are unable to process, regulate, or tolerate huge emotions, it goes into an “always on guard” mode to protect us. However, the protection turns into our own enemy when we can’t turn off the alarm bells, and we end up living with anxiety.

The cherry on top is that we often live in this state for so many years that it starts feeling normal and comfortable. We then crave drama and attract friends and partners that trigger us, only to go in a tailspin, which keeps us feeling emotionally charged.

But there’s a way out. It takes effort and courage to rewire our mind and body to function optimally and to live a more fulfilling life, but it is possible.

Everybody’s journey is unique, and we must all find out what works best for us. However, here are a few things that worked for me. I sincerely hope that they might be of help if you resonate with my experiences.

1. Remind yourself that you can handle whatever happens.

When we’re in survival mode, we create unhelpful stories in our heads and forecast the worst possible outcomes as means to keep ourselves safe. The key to releasing our fear-based need to protect ourselves is accepting that we can’t control everything. No amount of worrying can ensure that nothing hurts us.

All we can do is address what’s within our power and then consciously choose empowering thoughts. Remind that yourself that even if things don’t work out as you planned, you can handle it, and you’ll be safe.

2. Rewire your brain through awareness.

Regularly ask yourself if your thoughts are creating your emotions or your emotions are creating your thoughts. You’ll be amazed to realize that our mind creates statements that cause us to feel a certain way.

For example, if a friend doesn’t respond back to a text/call, you might make up stories about how maybe you said something to upset them or that something is wrong with them, and that elicits emotions in you accordingly. If you think they’re just busy, you’ll feel differently. So practice becoming aware of your stories so you don’t go into panic mode over thoughts that likely aren’t facts.

3. Scan your body.

Your body speaks in subtle ways. Always check in to know how you are really feeling. Is there tension somewhere, is your heart beating faster, is your jaw tight? When you’re curious about your physical sensations, you’ll start to recognize when you’re emotionally charged from reacting to a perceived threat. This enables you to proactively calm your nervous system—perhaps through deep breathing, petting your dog, or getting out in nature.

4. Be compassionate toward yourself.

It isn’t an easy journey, and you must be compassionate toward yourself. You’ve done your best to survive, and now it’s time to become conscious so you can thrive.

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