28/04/2017 07:59 BST | Updated 28/04/2017 07:59 BST

When You're Running On Empty: How To Get Out Of Survival Mode

Ever feel like you're scraping the bottom of the barrel just to get through the day?

A common thread I hear from people I speak with is many feel as though they are just getting by - living their life constantly in survival mode. They are exhausted most of the time, barely finding the energy to get through their day let alone to do the things that they love and bring them joy. They often find themselves snapping at those they love most only to be filled with guilt afterwards. They tell me it's like someone has sucked all of the colour out of their world.

When we feel this way, it's not because our job is stressful or because our children demand all of our attention or because of our never-ending to-do list. It's nothing external that creates this issue, though these circumstances can definitely exacerbate it. While it can be created out of many internal processes, this feeling is often the result of compromised biochemical pathways and because our body is stuck in a stress pattern that is literally its survival mode.


  • You feel exhausted and can't function until you've had your morning coffee. It perks you up a bit but barely touches the sides and you find yourself tired again a few hours later.
  • You crave sugary foods, particularly around 3pm as your energy begins to wane and you feel that you need something else to get you through the remainder of your day.
  • You can't shed the additional weight, no matter how much exercise you do or how well you eat.
  • Coffee is your best friend.
  • You struggle to say "no".
  • You laugh less than you used to.
  • Everything feels urgent and you're regularly anxious or worrying over something.
  • You're not sleeping as well as you used to, either struggling to fall asleep because your mind is still racing at a million miles an hour or waking up through the night with the same thing.
  • You're sure that there are never enough hours in the day to get through everything.

Experiencing any or all of the above can be an indication that your body is stressed and potentially lacking in enough nutrients to give you the energy you need to face the day-to-day tasks of your life. These are the signs and symptoms of our body being caught in "fight or flight" - the arm of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

Our bodies are hard-wired for survival so when we are caught in fight or flight, the body translates our perceived stress or pressure as a life-threatening danger. As such, it diverts the blood away from your digestive tract and into your arms and legs--which translates to being more prone to indigestion and other digestive upsets as our body favours keeping energy for helping us get away over digesting our food.

When our SNS is activated, our body also lowers the priority of a number of other functions, such as the production of sex hormones and the repair of tissue damage, in favour of producing adrenalin and cortisol--the stress hormones your body creates to help you through the period of danger. It also affects your sleep since of course your body doesn't want you sleeping too deeply if there is any potential threat about.

When we make these stress hormones, it changes how we breathe to being more rapid and shallow. Turning over more oxygen leads to more free radicals. These free radicals have the potential to damage our tissues (this is one of the key ways in which we age prematurely) so we must consume more antioxidants to combat their effect. Yet, many people eat poorer quality food when they are stressed, right when their body needs more nutrients.

There are many ways to shift yourself from this state. If you're feeling as though you're stuck in survival mode, try taking 20 long, slow diaphragmatic breaths each morning and night as this helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the body's natural "rest and repair" system that balances out the SNS. It might not sound like much but it can make a world of difference and is a great first step. Also, amp up your veggie intake--particularly your leafy greens which are full of antioxidants and other nutrients that our body needs to keep up with the demands of a busy life.