Last week I had a follow up with my internist. We were talking about the pandemic, what has happened in my life in the past year aside from the pandemic, and then we somehow got into takeout food, Twizzlers and how both of us gained five pounds.  Then the doctor said something that made me internally go, “YES-this is exactly what’s been happening to me in the past year!” (and many times before that).  She said, “It’s like we all just go into SURVIVAL MODE.”  

Survival Mode- we’ve all been there, but what does it exactly mean?  Well, basically it’s a fear-based mode that we go into when our fight-or-flight response is triggered.  Although it feels like it lasts forever, it’s truly a temporary thing.  Every time we have a big stressful event, a trauma, a major world event (hint, hint), we have the natural tendency to enter survival mode- and many of us do, and it’s not a bad thing- unless we can’t pull ourselves out of it.

Now, we all have our triggers for this survival mode, but I’m going to share some of mine, and how I pulled, and am currently pulling myself out, and making the switch from Survival Mode to Thrival Mode (I may have just made that word up…)

In 2007 we lost our son, who was born prematurely.  Survival mode kicked in after a few weeks of bone-crushing grief. We had a five-year-old to take care of, and we had to move forward with our life as a family.  So, we dove in to doing things, volunteered at school and kept busy, just to keep going.  Of course, we would have done a lot of things anyway, but I think that at least for me, I was afraid that if I stopped doting on our daughter and didn’t be the best mother ever, and do everything I could do, anytime I could do it and totally immerse myself in a multitude of activities, that I would just stop existing and fall into a pit of despair.  We had great times, in fact, our first trip to Disney took place within a year of that loss, but the undertone of “Jen, just keep surviving” was always present.  It took me ten years (you heard that right, TEN years) before the survival switch turned off when I was able to relax, incorporate the experience into my being and truly live and thrive again.  Then…

2017- Right after that switch was turned off from the loss of our son- I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  After the shock wore off, and a general WTF resonated from the walls of my house, survival mode kicked right back in.  The first thing I said was, “When I was 35, I lost a baby. When I was 45, I had breast cancer.  When I’m 55, I better win the damn lottery!”  It was different this time, though.  I had the oh-so-familiar feeling that I had to do whatever I had to do to get through this, but I was MAD, and I was going to fight my way through, every step of the way.  Doing what I needed to do this time in order to survive, was NOT doing anything, except for accepting my diagnosis and submitting to the treatment plan.  My survival depended on it, and it also depended on my attitude.  Yeah, I cried, got angry, got sad, and everything in between- but mostly I was grateful.  Grateful that my cancer was localized to one area.  Grateful that the surgeon was able to remove it all, with clear margins.  It sucked like nobody’s business that I had to endure chemotherapy and losing my hair was the worst experience ever- but I had my life, and a great prognosis.  What’s better than that? Survival mode lessens with each year that I remain in remission, but it still rears its head when a blood test is off, or if a weird pain occurs, etc.  BUT- for the most part, I am thriving, and that’s what matters!

Present Day- Now, I’m gonna be vague here because I’m not ready to publicly discuss exactly what the events were, but between January 2020, and today, I’ve gone through three extraordinary stressors, that at each time the Survival Mode switch was turned on.  After the second stressor, I went through some hair loss due to the stress I was under, which involved having steroid injections in my scalp to get rid of inflammation and restart hair growth (it worked, but man, did it hurt!).  For some of this time, I was literally just existing.  I was like a zombie- total Living Dead stuff.  I’d eat, but inside I was so upset that I’d get sick after I ate (sorry, maybe TMI, but it happened).  I couldn’t enjoy things.  It was bad… But then… Another switch turned itself on.  The Thrive Switch.  That little voice inside me said, “Jen, girlfriend- you’ve been through a lot of shit, and you’ve gotten through it all.  You are TOTALLY stronger than this, you are a badass and you ARE going to get through EVERYTHING!”  That voice was right!  So, that day I put a daily repeating message in my iCalendar that goes off each morning.  It says: You are a fucking badass and will get though everything!  I need the reminder in case I’m feeling not so positive on certain days…  Then, I did what is probably the most important thing- and its constant work, because emotions fluctuate and we have good and bad days- I decided that I had to just take care of MYSELF.  During our last stressful time, we had just done what we needed to do to get by.  We ordered out a lot, because I had no mental or physical energy to make dinner by the end of the day. Because of this lack of energy, I wasn’t exercising regularly, either.  But when I started taking care of myself the way I needed to, and in the way I DESERVE to, I started feeling so much better.  I am now on my road to thriving once more, and it helps in so many ways!  There are still bad days, sad days, low energy days, etc.- but there are many more feel-good days, and for that I am grateful, and motivated to keep going.

When we are in survival mode, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but there ARE things we can do to help ourselves out:

  • Reach out to others.  Our tendency is to go inward with our feelings, but by reaching out, we acknowledge that we are maybe not in a great place and need help and encouragement, and also, that others have been there and can offer support.  We’re all here to help each other.
  • Be kind to yourself.  You are not a failure, and are not doing anything wrong.  You’re going through a big stressful time, and this time is temporary.  We are our own worst enemy a lot of time- be gentle on yourself.
  • Try to move your body.  Take a walk, even around the house, EVEN if it’s the last thing you want to do.  Any kind of exercise releases endorphins, and they make you feel so much better.

Things get rough sometimes, and shit happens that changes your life, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t thrive during every period of your life.  It takes work- but survive while you need to, and find your THRIVE as many times as you can!

Love to each of you.

Jennifer Angarano Ricci is a wife, mother & creative soul-searcher.  She is a musician, artist, and baker, and runs her home business Baked By Jen, in addition to running her local community theater group.  She loves to sing, create and help others and tries to connect all three passions whenever possible.

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