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News > 'Survival mode' inhibits behavior, perspectives
'Survival mode' inhibits behavior, perspectives

Posted 12/22/2015   Updated 1/7/2016 Email story   Print story


by TSgt Paul Wells
USAF Band of the Golden West

12/22/2015 - Dec. 11 2015- TRAVIS AFB, Calif.  -- 
So, it's one of those mornings. You have multiple projects at work due at the same time. You leave your house early to get a jumpstart on the day but, of course, there's heavy traffic.

It is then you realize you left your ID at your desk. By the time you get a temporary pass to get on base and get to your office, your early start has vanished.

You arrive to work only to have a few unexpected curveballs thrown your way, that you immediately need to tackle. Before you know it, your co-workers head to lunch while you are just starting to gain momentum on your projects.

This scenario serves as a classic example of how multiple stressors can have a snowball effect and change a productive attitude into what many authors, educators and clinicians refer to as "survival mode."

Survival mode can occur when our brains become suddenly overwhelmed or stressed due to layered, unresolved issues.  According to a September 2012 Psychology Today Online article, John Montgomery states, "All negative or distressing emotions, like fear, disgust and anxiety, can be thought of as 'survival-mode' emotions."

In survival mode, our thinking becomes inhibited, lacking sound judgment and typical fight or flight responses.  We, in essence, become closed to rational thought.

When in survival mode, one may become irritable to coworkers, saying something unintentional or send that inflammatory email that should've been given a second look or deleted altogether.  On a physical level, one's first reaction may be to take out their frustrations on the nearest drywall with their fist, instead of taking a moment to regroup.  Does this sound familiar?  

Beyond looking foolish and/or causing professional or physical damage, the biggest detriment of survival mode is the inability to learn and use rational thought.  In his book, "Effective Supervision for the Helping Professions," Michael Carroll states, "Threat, danger and fear make learning virtually impossible." Carroll also remarks, "In survival mode, we are entering 'learning disability' territory, and the human faculties that keep us in optimum learning mode disappear or are curtailed."

That's right, folks. We are actually making a choice to become closed to new learning opportunities when we give into our fears.

Subconscious emotions also can be a threat. The fear of competition, personal bias, fear of change and fear of new ideas can push us into survival mode as well.

From the interpersonal level to the unit level to the organizational level, we as an Air Force must strive to stay in learning mode. Our challenge as adults and professionals is to avoid unnecessarily slipping into survival mode. It is our job to recognize these occurrences in our Airmen as well. The Air Force mission requires us to work together in all situations.  This can only be accomplished when we put our fears aside and use the engine of rational thought to drive our collective efforts.

If I had this information years ago, I could have avoided numerous drywall repairs, sleepless nights and senseless arguments. More importantly, each one of those situations could have been a learning experience.

In closing, here's a tongue-in-cheek quote from Robert Frost illustrating the onset of survival mode.  It reads, "The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get to the office."

It serves as a good reminder that it is just as important to exercise rational thought as well as all the other exercises you do.   

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