so much has fallen into place these last few months. part of me wants to celebrate, but a part of me is energized and inspired to accomplish more. it’s not an entirely new feeling, but one that hasn’t come up in a while.
i am moving away from survival mode and finally into a space where i can analyze, evaluate, and evolve. these past pandemic years uncovered determination and resilience in myself, the likes of which i’ve never seen.
as i reflect, i feel proud to have endured the hardship and uncertainty. at the same time, i am keenly aware of how those years of being stuck in “fight or flight’ mode have affected me. it’s exhausting to be worried about work, family, security, and health all at once all the time.
every human has to consider a few major focus areas in life:
basic needs // one’s ability to obtain food and shelter profoundly impacts the way they see the world.
health // this does not just encompass physical well-being and mental health, but also personal safety.
relationships // humans depend on social interaction, evolving and adapting in relationship to other beings.
during the pandemic, every human on the planet experienced a disruption to one, if not all three, of these things. this makes us feel off balance, preoccupied, irritable and unsettled. as a result, we did what humans do best which is to respond to stimuli.
our nervous system is awe-inspiring AND remains largely unchanged from many thousands of years. when we feel stress in our bodies, they react the same way they did since the dawn of human existence. this means that the body’s natural response to being chased down in the bush by a prehistoric saber-toothed tiger is the same way we react to getting a snarky email from a coworker or encountering a traffic accident on our way to an appointment. our muscles tense, our heart rate increases, and our senses heighten. regardless of the stimulus, our sympathetic nervous system is blind to the details and can only hear one message:
S T R E S S.
so, when life hands us a rotten egg as it did in 2020, and the drama mounts because we experience job loss, exposure to infectious disease, and physical distance from the ones we love, we are no longer able to function as we did before.
we transition into survival mode: a sustained ‘fight or flight’ response that sends our stress hormones into overdrive.. as we soldier through the day with clenched teeth and fists, we make choice after critical choice in order to survive each moment.
instant gratification really shines when we are in this state, bringing with it joy and pleasure that delights even if it is temporary. and why shouldn’t we enjoy a momentary respite from the constant survival struggle? we cannot pour from an empty cup after all.
for me, it’s food. abundant and delicious food makes me happy and, when i’m extremely overprogrammed with stressful thoughts, it offers comfort from the chaos and a chance for me to enjoy myself. for others, it’s a glass of wine or online shopping or garbage television. whatever we use, the result is the same: a feeling of joy that soothes and reminds us everything is fine so we can continue the fight to survive.
the sympathetic nervous system is critical to human survival, but excessive activation comes at a price. i will stay out of the weeds and simply say that chronic stress does, in fact, take a great toll on our mental and physical health.
for this reason, i have to share my gratitude for the blessings of this year. through a lot of hard work, a little luck, and boatloads of determination, i managed to pull off some sweeping lifestyle changes that are helping to balance my three main focus areas. i am starting to feel secure in my survival once again.
plentiful work at new companies and homeownership means that food, shelter, and utilities have once again become a certainty for my family. research has produced therapies and vaccines for COVID-19 that have stabilized the spread which helps assuage my health concerns and provided more opportunities for gathering with loved ones.
simply put, i’m not wringing my hands with worry every day, or doom scrolling on my news feed. i have things to look forward to again. for the first time since january of 2020, i feel like i have room in my brain to level up. and now that i can look out a little further into the horizon, i want to optimize. i don’t just want to survive, i want to thrive. so, where to begin?
let’s circle back to instant gratification. it is incredibly powerful because it can lift us from the lowest of places with a snap of a finger. we will go to great lengths for the dopamine rush, even if it yields an undesirable outcome.
for myself, the action of eating comfort foods has become a ‘go-to’ solution in my survival toolkit for how to cope with uncomfortable feelings. it felt good in the moment, but i’m not sure it’s serving me anymore. of course, i want to lose the extra weight, but i recognize there is a bit more to the solution than that.
before i can change my survival habit for good, i have to understand where it’s coming from. i also need to forgive myself for “letting it happen” in the first place.
as much as i wish life were a video game, and i could just select a different character or persona when it suits me, it is not this way. change and adaptation takes much more time, attention and intention than i had to give when was stuck in survivor mode.
i am working to reframe the moment and choose self-kindness. my inclination is to be frustrated with myself for end up in a place i didn’t like, however the smarter, wiser me is proud of myself for surviving and eager to create better habits for the future.
the journey to thriving will be long, but i am curiously optimistic about what i will learn along the way. wanna join me?