Living in Survival Mode: How Trauma Can Affect Our Brain

“Survive? Who the fuck jus’ wants to survive? That’s what I’m doing now, man, surviving!” he said to the sound of the front door closing below.

“Fuck it, man, for once in my life I want to live, really live, not jus’ survive—dig?”—Rufus, On the Ropes.

On the Ropes offer various themes that encompass the black American experience. One of which is the ramifications of living in constant survival. In a time of political turmoil in the ’60s, it seems apparent more than ever that most are living in “survival mode.”

So, what does living in “survival mode” mean?

Suppose you are familiar with the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. In that case, you may be familiar with how a period of crisis can affect our behavior. 

Psychologically speaking, people with traumatic experiences focus on self-preservation. Instead of reacting in a calm and grounded manner, traumatic people may respond differently.

What are the signs of a traumatic person?

1. Lack of focus.

Traumatic individuals may find it hard to concentrate on their tasks, much less complete them. This lack of focus also applies to tasks they’re familiar with but need more motivation to finish.

2. Experience changes in memory.

Trauma can affect the brain in more ways than one. Stress may affect the hippocampus when a person has experienced a traumatic event. This part of the brain stores and retrieves memories while differentiating past and present experiences. Unfortunately, trauma can affect the hippocampus’ ability to distinguish experiences, making us relive the event repeatedly.

3. Experiences constant fatigue.

Individuals who have lived in survival mode for a long time may feel more tired physically and psychologically.

4. Emotionally reactive or volatile.

Traumatic individuals may react volatile over things that usually wouldn’t respond in such a manner. Whether you’re snippier, grumpier, or more tearful than before—being emotionally volatile is a sign of unresolved trauma.

5. Neglect or forgetfulness over basic needs.

Some people who have experienced traumatic events may become less adept at caring for themselves. One reason may be because they either cannot be bothered to complete simple tasks (an effect of lack of focus) or believe they don’t deserve it. Whatever the case, individuals may adopt harmful coping mechanisms, which include alcohol, drugs, and other reckless activities.

6. Impulsive.

Aside from being withdrawn, some people may become more impulsive because of the trauma they have endured. Whether it’s getting into risky endeavors like gambling or fighting—trauma can lead to antisocial behaviors.

Final thoughts:

As you can see, trauma can have debilitating effects on our health—physically and mentally. While the characters in my book are fictional, there is no doubt that their impact on their psyche and reaction are very much real.

If you are struggling with traumatic experiences, contact a mental health professional at once.

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