Updated: Sep 29
What is Survival Brain Burn-out?
With the all the upheaval of 2020, many of us have been experiencing higher than usual levels of stress over the course of this unpredictable year. Health experts have predicted that the prolonged and unique stresses imparted by the COVID-19 pandemic may well result in 'a significant rise in mental health issues in the weeks, months, and years ahead.' (1)
Long periods of stress often manifest into symptoms of PTSD and burn-out. PTSD is a condition mainly associated with War Veterans. However, with teachers, health professionals, business owners and many other workers affected with the unpredictability of the changing climate, these conditions are certainly on the cards for side-effects of the pandemic.
Symptoms of these conditions vary but characterize themselves in fatigue, flashbacks, a lack of drive, and a kind of numbness to events and surroundings.
After experiencing these symptoms myself, I want to share with you some of my research on a) the causes, and b) recovery and preventative measures for what I call, 'Survival Brain Burn-out.'
Throughout our history as wondering ape creatures, we have had to survive a lot of weird shit. Think poisonous creatures, predators, scary mad people, rapists, ax-wielding murderers, natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, forest fires, etc. Over time we built up a special system to help us recognize and react to these threatening and dangerous situations, and save our sorry arses.
So what happens exactly when we detect a threat? Say you encounter an aggressive dog, growling and bearing its teeth at you. Your sympathetic nervous system triggers what is called an 'acute stress response'. You might know this better as the 'fight/ flight or freeze' response.
How it works:
So, as you can see, the stress response triggers the release of hormones in the body - more specifically adrenaline and cortisol. These cause us to instinctively react with aggression, run away, or hide. This state is called 'Survival brain'.
click here for more on the natural stress response.
CHARACTERISTICS OF BEING IN SURVIVAL BRAIN MODE:
hyper-focus on threats
don't like ambiguity/ want facts
feelings of panic
obsessive about stuff
afraid of getting things wrong
don't feel calm and open to learning
suppressed sex drive/ loss of appetite
hate making mistakes
afraid of looking stupid
vigilance and inability to sleep
Essentially, our ape-man brain is always ready and waiting to be alerted of any immediate threat in our environment. But we don't live in wild forests and icy saber-tooth-ridden tundras anymore, and we've pretty much desecrated almost all of our natural predators to nothing. Old threats have been replaced by modern ones, which are not always as easy to spot. Our primal brains get confused in the modern world. Ol' survival brain can be triggered and manipulated in so many different ways; from news feeds which profit off sensationalism and fear, to propaganda from Political parties who find us new enemies to hate in order to gain voting power and other underhand agendas. Modern life over the past 300 years has also been rife with the normalization of oppressive fear-driven hierarchical work and learning environments, where an emphasis on production value over well-being has gradually broken down our seasonal patterns and community support systems, mistaking us for machines instead of animals. (2) Other modern pandemics, like the culturosocial mythology of romanticized love and the rise of individualism have impacted our relationships and left hungry holes in the Western Psyche that leave us feeling disconnected, alone and confused.
So it's a real wild game to play, being here now, where greater access and also greater manipulation of information results in increasing confusion about what is 'real' and what is an imagined threat. If we are not careful, the survival mode can become our 'go-to' brain function setting.
When this happens it can result in a damaged immune-system, burn-out and PTSD. With trauma, any little stress can start to over-activate the release of stress hormones and impede our regular functions. And because people with trauma tend to interpret uncertain situations as threatening and stressful, that survival brain, which is supposed to activate temporarily when it encounters real threats, is switched on for weeks and months at a time, reacting to ambiguous information.
Symptoms of living in survival brain (3):
Lack of focus: Things are foggy and it’s harder to finish an activity.
Changes in memory: You have a harder time remembering things that happened throughout the day.
Fatigue in mind and body.
Reacting more emotionally than usual.
Neglecting basic needs like brushing your teeth, exercising, changing your sheets.
Being impulsive – spending excessively, eating more, engaging in activities you don’t normally do.
RECOVERY AND PREVENTION
So how can someone stuck in survival brain mode return to a more healthy brain state of connection? The opposite of survival mode (the sympathetic nervous system) is connection mode, also called learning brain (the parasympathetic nervous system). With the over-activation of survival mode, sometimes our brains forget how to slide back into connection mode. Connection mode is when our body puts energy into learning, reproduction, collaboration, communication, problem-solving, rest, growth and repair. In this state it's easy to be calm, curious, compassionate, joyful, playful and open. As Jacob Ham, PhD says in his brilliant video, 'As survival brain stays on longer and longer, it's harder to get out and access learning brain.'
When we're stuck in 'Survival brain', how can we practice accessing 'learning brain'?
1. A Supportive Environment.
Students learn best when they feel safe and supported by the adults around them. A supportive environment that builds trust and positive relationships will nurture and activate the learning brain. (4) We do our best when we seek out people who make us feel safe. This can obviously be challenging when there is already trauma and a lack of trust. We can reach out to therapeutic organisations online and local communities. If we have them, we can benefit from spending time around friends and family who we can be open with. If not,we can work on cultivating some of these kind of relationships through supportive networks.
2. Revisiting our belief systems.
Our subconscious mind, the part that runs the body, depends on our core beliefs to know how to interpret events. What we believe about an event tells our brain’s operating system, the subconscious mind, how to handle it, more specifically, whether to remain in a ‘learning brain' or to activate the body’s ‘survival brain'.
As Alain de Botton says in this video on emotional triggers, we have tendencies to get wildly more worried, angry and anxious than we really need to. We are biologically wired to react to occurrences in our immediate environment that trigger emotional memories from our often distant pasts. For example someone who is emotionally triggered by a plate of fish in a restaurant due to a traumatic bone-swallowing experience as a kid. Their initial reaction will be to avoid the fish. However according the family therapist Emma McAdam, this avoidance strategy, which is designed to keep us safe, actually causes our anxiety levels to grow.
However, when we face the fear, we are allowing our brain the opportunity to learn that the perceived threat is actually safe. By changing how we think and act in a situation, we can rewire our brains and become more active in the world, and resilient to burn out. You may have heard of exposure therapy, which focuses on recovering from heightened anxiety responses using this method.
'We must learn to adopt a robust suspicion of our first impulses. It isn't that there is nothing scary or worrying in the outer world whatsoever, simply that our initial responses are liable to be without proportion or without calculation of adult strength, resilience, resourcefulness and options.' (5)
3. Grounding Activities
Grounding is an important approach to managing our fears and anxieties in survival mode, instead of blindly reacting to them. Grounding strengthens our parasympathetic response (learning brain), which counteracts the survival response. Here is a link to a Youtube channel by Emma McAdam which has some simple grounding exercises. 'The squeeze hug' is a nice grounding activity suitable for kids and adults.These grounding activities are similar to the mindfulness and meditation techniques popularized in the West over the past few decades.
Mindfulness practices have been proven to grow the hippocampus - an area of the brain connected to memory and learning that shrinks when we have stress-related disorders. Studies have also shown that the amygdala, known as our brain's 'fight or flight' center and the seat of our fearful and anxious emotions, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness practice. (6) Check out this video for an introduction to Mindfulness by Dan Harris. He also has a great app for learning and practicing meditation.
'Grounding helps us to reconnect to our body and our present moment, and activates the safe feeling in our brain. We are able to work through and process emotions and reactions in a calm way, which helps to release trauma.'(7)
Burn-out is caused by an over-activation of the survival brain mode for prolonged periods of time. PTSD is also stress-related.
Certain events can trigger our emotional brains to react in survival mode, causing us to feel high levels of stress and anxiety.
In the modern world, many of these trigger reactions are not actually immediately threatening to us. However, as we become more accustomed to being in a state of stress, it becomes more difficult to 'come down' into states of recovery and relaxation, or 'the learning brain'. This has dire consequences on our mental and physical long term health.
Three things that can contribute towards recovery and prevention from burn out and PTSD are:
1. Reach out to people who make you feel happy and safe.
2. Challenge your irrational fears by taking small actions.
3. Practice grounding techniques and mindfulness.
There are many other contributing factors to reduced stress levels, such as healthy diet and exercise, you can check some of them out in the links listed below:
RESOURCES FOR BURNOUT RECOVERY
'Burnout Prevention and Treatment' a useful article from helpguide.org by Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Lawrence Robinson.
RESOURCES FOR PTSD RECOVERY
'WHAT CAN I DO TO RECOVER FROM PTSD ON MY OWN?' a podcast from Mental Health America.
Thank you for reading this article
This article was written by Alice Turner, a TEFL teacher from South England currently living and working in Bulgaria.
Covid-related PTSD: https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/930150
survival brain vs learning brain - a great video from Jacob Ham https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoqaUANGvpA&ab_channel=JacobHam
news feeds and sensationalism
Great article on the dangers and history of romanticized love: https://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2011/06/the-neuroscience-of-romanticized-love-part-1-emotional-taboos/
Dan Harris great little video on mindfulness https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6T02g5hnT4&ab_channel=Happify