Trauma and the Brain: Signs You Might Be Living in ‘Survival Mode’


The ongoing pandemic and the isolation at home may mean you and your children are feeling the effects of the “survival brain.”

During times of crisis, chaos, and traumatic experiences we enter “survival mode.”

Normally, our prefrontal cortex, or the thinking brain, handles executive problem solving, organization, emotional regulation, critical thinking, and decision making.

It tends to think logically rather than emotionally to produce a well thought out response or action.

When we experience trauma, like a pandemic, the survival brain grows brighter, reacting impulsively for self-preservation.

Executive problem solving skills are dimmed in the interest of immediate safety.

It can be hard to know when you’re in survival brain – especially during prolonged periods of communal trauma, like during a global pandemic, or after a tragic death and civil unrest.

Some survival brain tip-offs:

  1. Lack of focus: Things are foggy and it’s harder to finish an activity.
  2. Changes in memory: You have a harder time remembering things that happened throughout the day.
  3. Fatigue in mind and body.
  4. Reacting more emotionally than usual.
  5. Neglecting basic needs like brushing your teeth, exercising, changing your sheets.
  6. Being impulsive – spending excessively, eating more, engaging in activities you don’t normally do.

For children, survival brain reaction to trauma looks a little different.

Some survival brain tip-offs:

  1. Increased emotional expression or dysregulation – crying often, aggression, yelling, depression, etc.
  2. Withdrawn or isolated from others: A child may stop doing activities they enjoy or engaging in conversations.
  3. Trouble trusting others: lying, stealing, or keeping secrets.
  4. Jumpy, more on edge.
  5. Zoning out, losing focus, not hearing when you call their name.

Trauma can come from:

  • Changes to routine
  • Disruption of school
  • Disconnection from friends and family
  • Loss of loved ones
  • Emotions from civil unrest
  • Experiences with racism
  • Bullying
  • Financial unknown

There is hope for change.

If you or your child are experiencing these symptoms and it’s interfering with daily function, talk to a mental health professional. This is why we are here!

Trauma experiences don’t have to impact how we live forever, but it’s important to address it, and to remember you are not alone in the healing process.

Some things that will help:

  • Be gentle and kind to yourself. You are not doing anything wrong. You are doing enough. You are not failing. You are having a physiological experience to stress and trauma. This is normal – and temporary.
  • Move your body in a way that feels good. Exercise can be a great way to release energy and endorphins. Make sure it’s something you enjoy!
  • Reach out for supports. Call a friend. Facetime. Take a walk.
  • Practice grounding techniques.  Deep, slow breaths. Connecting to what’s physically in front of you is powerful to bring your brain back to baseline. Splash water on your face or hold an ice cube – it might sound strange, but it works.
  • Prioritize the self care basics: Get enough sleep, eat enough, put on new clothes in the morning, find things you enjoy and make sure to do them even if it’s a 20 minute Netflix show.

Recovering from trauma does take time and hard work, but the healing process can be so rewarding. If months have passed and your symptoms aren’t letting up, reach out for support. You don’t have to do this alone.

Child Guidance Resource Centers  is a nonprofit community behavioral healthcare organization, dedicated to providing quality care and educational services that assess, treat, and empower children, adolescents, and families with behavioral challenges, developmental disabilities, or residential needs in the Delaware Valley. Click here to find out more.

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