How do your body and mind react to long-term stress? Polyvagal Theory can shed some light on what you experience and help you cope better.
What is survival mode?
Stressful stimuli cause a physiological and psychological response called our survival mode. This mode involves the release of stress hormones and the activation of our stress-response systems. Our mind and body become focused on combating danger.
Survival mode originally evolved to help us handle threats. When we cannot escape or fight, which are states of physiological hyperarousal, we are wired to freeze, a state of hypoarousal. Both hypoarousal and hyperarousal responses are highly effective for brief stressors. However, if the stress is constant, prolonged survival mode becomes maladaptive.
“A child’s (or an adult’s) nervous system may detect danger or a threat to life when the child enters a new environment or meets a strange person. Cognitively, there is no reason for them to be frightened. But often, even if they understand this, their bodies betray them. Sometimes this betrayal is private; only they are aware that their hearts are beating fast and contracting with such force that they start to sway. For others, the responses are more overt. They may tremble. Their faces may flush, or perspiration may pour from their hands and forehead. Still others may become pale and dizzy and feel precipitously faint.”
―Stephen W. Porges
The rise of survival mode in modern society
Unfortunately in our modern society, a growing number of individuals are encountering almost constant stressors and entering prolonged survival mode. The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of communal trauma that can trigger this.
A 2022 study suggests the pandemic brings a variety of long-term stressors that can exacerbate our time spent in survival mode.
- Uncertainty about the future. The majority of individuals surveyed noted that uncertainty was a daily stressor, with many additionally noting that they felt grief for missed events such as weddings and graduations.
- New COVID-19 strains. Sixty-six percent reported that each new strain brings more stress and diminishes their hope that the pandemic will ever end. These extended periods of suffering have resulted in typical survival mode traits including time distortion and dissociation, whereby time seems to pass by either too slowly or quickly.
- Inability to see friends and family. More than half of Americans reported that they could not see loved ones during the pandemic. This contributed to the 42% of individuals experiencing loneliness and 58% of individuals noting strain on their relationships.
- Inadequate developmental opportunities. With the ever-changing school environment, many children aren’t receiving adequate social, academic, or emotional development opportunities. A total of 167,000 children and counting have also lost parents and caregivers to this pandemic. These significant stressors mean long-term survival mode is highly likely in children.
Unfortunately, 87% of individuals surveyed agreed that “it feels like there has been a constant stream of crises over the last two years.” This indicates the seemingly constant barrage of stressors prompting long-term survival mode.
How do these prolonged periods of survival mode affect you?
1. Survival mode can trigger unhealthy coping
When experiencing intense, ongoing stressors, many individuals adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as problems with eating, substance abuse, and other harmful behaviors. This is evidenced by more than 50% of individuals having an unhealthier life now than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. Survival mode can cause declines in mental health
A 2022 study revealed that adverse mental health conditions increased in 60% of individuals one year after the COVID-19 pandemic began. These individuals, who didn’t have any previous mental health conditions, commonly developed:
- substance use disorders
- sleep disorders
- neurocognitive decline
Another direct effect of survival mode in the COVID-19 pandemic is increased rates of broken-heart syndrome. This involves cardiovascular issues directly caused by prolonged stress response.
3. Youth are experiencing a mental health crisis
Rather distressingly, inpatient mental health services for children and young adults ages 5 to 17 has increased drastically, with suicide and self-injury incidents increasing by a
staggering 42%. Living life consistently in survival mode has also prompted increased depression, trauma, and anxiety in children.
Cope better by understanding “ladder of arousal states”
Your body and mind are responding as best they can in this situation. At the same time, applying the concepts of polyvagal theory can empower you by offering you an idea of how to move forward, even if you are not ready to do so.
The three stress responses can be conceptualized as dynamic, providing adaptive responses to safe, dangerous, or life threatening events and contexts.
1. The bottom rung on the ladder: Freeze/Hypoarousal/Passive Avoidance
Feigning death, freezing, or becoming immobilized is our oldest, reptilian method of defense.
“When faced with a potential life-threatening situation – which the sympathetic branch cannot resolve or is simply overwhelmed by stimuli – the autonomic nervous system shuts the body down: self-preservation through the conservation of energy. The heart rate falls dramatically along with blood pressure.”
—The Khiron Clinic
2. The middle rung on the ladder: Fight-or-Flight/Hyperarousal/Active Avoidance
A sympathetic reaction – one that mobilizes energy – brings people into a fight-or-flight state. We might feel flush, perspire, or the heart beating faster. Stress and tension are detectable. Anger, anxiety, or panic may be the felt experience. The world is no longer safe but unfriendly and dangerous. The autonomic nervous system is telling us to protect ourselves. Defensive behaviors, manifested in various way, follow.
Because the body is physiologically gearing up to fight or flee, internal resources are redirected. Blood shifts away from the digestive system and to muscles and limbs. Cortisol is released from the adrenal gland. Resources are not evenly spread across the body for optimal function but instead are rallied in service of survival. The nourishing functions humans need are temporarily suspended.
3. The top rung on the ladder: Safe/Rest and Digest/Engagement
“To effectively switch from defensive to social engagement strategies, the mammalian nervous system needs to perform two important adaptive tasks: assess risk, and if the environment is perceived as safe, inhibit the more primitive limbic structures that control fight, flight, or freeze behaviors.Any stimulus that has the potential for increasing an organism’s experience of safety has the potential of recruiting the evolutionarily more advanced neural circuits that support the prosocial behaviors of the social engagement system.”
—Stephen Porges, PhD
This is the state from which your body and mind want to respond because it is our most advanced way of functioning.
A variety of positive human conditions are available to you when you are not experiencing threat or vigilance, and when you aren’t physiologically immobilized in fear or preparing for mobilization in defense of yourself. Your body and mind are ready to:
- receive and give love
- experience a sense of trust
- have optimized bodily functions
- sustain healthy metabolic functioning
- recharge the immune system
- form positive attachments
This is our most complex state of being. In this place, you thrive. Your body is in homeostasis. You are able to be physiologically efficient, to grow, and to restore. When you are in this relaxed state, you are prepared for reciprocity, for play, and for social engagement. And because the mind and body work together in all three states of arousal, when you’re in homeostasis your eye gaze, facial expression, listening, and prosody (eg., rhythmic pattern of speech) are observably at ease.
Next time your body and mind are hijacked by hypoarousal or hyperarousal, try to notice and offer yourself compassion. Picture where you are on this ladder of arousal states. Recognize that you are being triggered into a reaction by some type of threat. Then, consider how calming your voice, slowing your breathing, and being present and engaged with another person might help bring you up to the top rung. Of course, you may benefit from trauma therapy as well. No matter what, though, knowing what you’re going through is normal and adaptive, and understanding why it is hard to “just calm down,” may give you a helpful perspective.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Stress in America. American Psychological Association. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Post-COVID conditions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/long-term-effects/index.html
Khiron Clinics. (2020). Polyvagal theory: A ladder of nervous states. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://khironclinics.com/blog/polyvagal-theory-a-ladder-of-nervous-states/
Large study shows 60% increase in mental health conditions after COVID. (n.d.). Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://psychcentral.com/news/study-shows-increased-risk-of-mental-health-disorders-after-covid-19#Takeaway
Porges, S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 76(4 Suppl 2), S86–S90. https://doi.org/10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17
Porges, S. W. (2007). The polyvagal perspective. Biol Psychol, 74(2),116-143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.06.009
Tomlin, J., Dalgleish-Warburton, B., & Lamph, G. (2020). Psychosocial support for healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01960All Blogs