• Your body may give you signals that you are more stressed than you realise 

  • Jen Mann offers 8 telltale signs that your nervous system is in survival mode

  • We have many body-oriented and holistic therapists available on Welldoing – find them here

1. Heightened alertness

You have a perpetual sense of being on high alert so you’re very sensitive to your environment. You may find yourself being jumpy and reacting to innocuous sounds or movements as though they pose a threat. This can result in feeling anxious, overwhelmed, hyper vigilant and on edge, never being able to relax.

2. Increased heart rate and blood pressure

When you find that your heart races regularly for seemingly no reason, it’s a sign that your body’s gearing up for some kind of danger. The body prepares for action by increasing heart rate and blood pressure to ensure there’s enough oxygen and nutrients going to essential organs and muscles. When this response persists where there is no actual danger, it can strain the heart and blood vessels.

3. Difficulty sleeping

When in survival mode, your mind remains vigilant and refuses to quiet down at bedtime. This vigilance results in insomnia or disturbed sleep patterns leaving you unable to get the deep, restorative sleep that’s vital for your health and wellbeing.

4. Fatigue

You often feel drained and have low energy even when you haven’t exerted yourself. This fatigue happens because the body’s resources are continuously being diverted to dealing with perceived threats. There’s little left for even normal daily activities. When this happens over an extended period of time, it can lead to chronic fatigue syndrome.

5. Digestive issues

You experience frequent digestive issues like stomach aches, nausea, constipation, or diarrhoea without a clear cause. Your body deems digestion as a lower priority when survival is on the line so it suppresses the digestive system which can’t function as it should. Over time this can lead to food sensitivities or conditions like IBS or IBD.

6. Mood fluctuations

Your everyday emotional responses can be intense and unpredictable. The constant strain of survival mode on your nervous system commonly results in irritability, anxiety, depression, or emotional numbness.

7. Memory and concentration problems

You have a persistent feeling of brain fog, you’re forgetful, have a hard time focusing, and you’re unable to do things that require sustained attention. Your brain's preoccupation with surviving can impair its ability to form new memories or concentrate on complex tasks.

8. Muscle tension and pain

Whether you’re active or not, you experience chronic tension, aches, and pains throughout your body. When your body is constantly preparing to face threats, your muscles remain semi-contracted and ready for action. This persistent muscle readiness can contribute to ongoing headaches, back pain, and general discomfort. 

If you’re experiencing some or all of these issues, it is more than likely that your nervous system is in survival mode. Recognising the signs is the first step toward re-establishing a sense of balance and improving your wellbeing. 

You have the ability to guide your mind and body back to a state of equilibrium. Using nervous system-centered techniques, prioritising self-care, and getting professional help can all play a part in soothing/healing your nervous system. 

These techniques include cues that help stimulate the vagus nerve and a regulating homeostatic response in the body like: 

  • deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises prioritising a longer exhale
  • gargling every morning for up to three minutes
  • vocalisations using AA, OO, UU, MM, EE sounds on the exhale stimulating the vagus nerve
  • tapping
  • shaking and bouncing during moments of high stress to help move pent up energy
  • cold exposure such as taking cold showers or immersing yourself in cold water
  • engaging in regular conscious movement like Qigong, Tai chi or yoga

And professional help like seeking 1:1 support with a nervous system and trauma-informed health coach or therapist, a somatic experiencing therapist, and other holistic nervous system-based therapists.

Remember, while survival mode is a natural and necessary response to immediate danger, we are not meant to live in this state indefinitely. With the right tools, you can reduce stress and address the symptoms of survival mode so you can go from a state of constant alertness to one of balance, where you can flourish. 

Jennifer Mann and Karden Rabin co-authors of The Secret Language of the Body  

Further reading

What is the vagus nerve?

Polyvagal theory, dissociation and trauma: Healing through embodiment

What is body psychotherapy?

How to move through trauma