October 15, 2020

How we can use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Move Out of Survival Mode. ~ Annie Grace


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Ever since the pandemic hit, most of us have been stuck in survival mode.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that the needs on the lower level need to be fulfilled before we can pursue those higher up. From bottom-up, our needs are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

For the past nine months, I’ve been constantly hovering between psychological and safety needs. Just trying to survive. Getting through each day has been enough without expending any extra energy on any needs beyond that.

I can’t do it anymore. I need more. Staying stuck in survival mode keeps me stuck. I remember being here before while stuck inside my own head from anxiety, depression, and alcohol use disorder—merely doing what I could to get through each day.

Our psychological and safety needs always have to be met first. During survival mode, we shouldn’t put added pressure on ourselves to attain more than that.

Survival mode looks like:

>> Meeting basic needs: food, water, sleep, air

>> Self-care: showering, checking in with loved ones

>> Safety: physical safety, emotional safety, financial safety

Survival mode is vital, but it isn’t sustainable. Eventually, meeting our basic needs no longer fulfills us. We’re complex beings and we need to continually develop and enrich our lives. Traumatic and stressful events like the pandemic force us back to our primal needs—survival mode. We’ve made it through nine months of survival mode and our brains are now saying we need to move on, pursue more.

Staying stuck sucks. I know because I stayed in survival mode for years when I was drinking. Just getting through each day but never actually getting anywhere. Stuck in the turmoil inside my own mind. Ruminating just exacerbates our anxiety and discontent.

We cannot move into healing from the stressful and traumatic events we have endured until we move out of survival mode. I’m moving out of survival mode with the pandemic just as I did with my drinking. I’m also doing it the same way I did with my drinking.

Not recklessly and at the expense of others. Not by following what others say is the right or only way to approach it.

I’m doing my research and making informed and empowered decisions using my personal principles to guide me.

Maslow’s principles still apply when moving out of survival mode. How they apply has just changed:

When moving out of survival mode, where I’m seeking to meet these needs changes. Instead of relying on grocery delivery, I’m enjoying going to the store and actually picking my own produce and an impulse buy or two. We’ve braved dining out (literally by sitting outside!) at restaurants and the healing that comes with resuming normal activities while still adhering to safety precautions.

When healing from trauma, I think being able to take important first steps that move us out of our comfort zone while fulfilling our basic needs provides the small victories we need to continue moving forward.

Personally, I feel this is the hardest area to begin to stretch in whether you’re moving out of survival mode in the pandemic, after addiction, or any other trauma. Safety is the great equalizer when it comes to survival. Considering, or actually doing anything, that challenges what we’ve come to know as essential to our safety can kick up the anxiety and ruminating cycle. We’ve all struggled with safety decisions in the pandemic.

When I was drinking, alcohol seemed essential to my safety when it came to socializing or relieving stress. Referring back to our research and guiding principles can allow us to set nonnegotiables related to safety. By knowing that what we’re doing doesn’t violate those, we can push out established safety boundaries without inflicting overwhelming anxiety.

Love and Belonging.
This is one area where I’ve been able to draw incredible parallels between moving from survival mode with alcohol and with the pandemic. Addiction is incredibly isolating; it distances you from everyone and causes you to feel so alone and unloved.

The pandemic has had the same impact on us. We’ve had to distance from friends and loved ones while spending way too much time alone in our own thoughts analyzing our flaws and weaknesses. No longer are we just surviving though—it’s time to pursue love. Loving ourselves and others.

The greatest healing comes when we actively pursue filling this need. Safely reestablishing relationships, creating connections, and breaking the cycle of beating ourselves up over needing to just survive for a while.

One of the hardest parts of having the world paused is that it also paused our ability to pursue and achieve. It’s hard to do things that create a sense of achievement when you worked all day from your couch while still in your pajamas. (Not that I’ve ever personally done that myself…) All that ruminating, self-reflection, and research has actually provided you the fuel and the resources to be able to pursue and achieve. Chances are you’ve done much of the work needed to already—you just haven’t had a chance to organize those thoughts and put them out in a way that is cohesive.

I realized this when I fretted that I’d wasted almost a year of my life researching why I drank so much, the effects of alcohol on the body and brain, and all the other things that kept me stuck drinking. But all of that research and analysis is what allowed me to stop drinking, and that was just the beginning of the achievements. Esteem builds more esteem and, essentially, there are eternal returns from it.

All those flaws and things you felt you were supposed to be doing or working on while stuck in survival come to fruition here. Not all at once though. This is where a slow build-up is needed so we don’t find ourselves back in survival mode because we feel defeated from not being able to self-actualize all the things in one fell swoop. In many ways, survival mode is needed so we can bring to light the very things we need to pursue and fulfill in order to live a more meaningful life.

Survival mode isn’t a negative thing. It’s a pause button that gives us a chance to reflect and reprioritize.

Had my drinking not spiraled out of control and forced me into survival mode, I would still be stuck where I was working a corporate nine-to-five job that I might have been good at but it didn’t fulfill me or leave me with any time or energy to pursue the things that fill my bucket. You see, many times, even if we think we are thriving—enjoying wildly successful careers, a large social network, or whatever we consider to be “making it”—we really are still stuck in survival mode, only fulfilling our basic needs and nothing more.

The pandemic brought survival mode on for me again, and for that, I am thankful. The mindset shift allowed me to reassess a life I thought I was thriving in and once again seek the relationships, achievements, and goals I’m really meant to be pursuing.


If you are curious about your drinking and want to take this time to evaluate it rather than diving deeper into it, join me for The Alcohol Experiment. You will receive encouraging and mindset shifting daily videos and emails and an incredible community of 130,000 people also experimenting with their alcohol intake. It is completely free (and always will be) at The Alcohol Experiment.

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