Survival mode is like your mind and body’s emergency alarm system. When you face stress or danger, this system activates, making you hyper alert and ready to fight, flee or freeze. It’s a protective response. However, if this alarm keeps ringing even when there’s no immediate threat, it can feel exhausting and overwhelming.
The 5 grounding techniques for managing survival mode are the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique, Safe Place Visualization, Wim Hof Breathing, Tree Visualization and Cathartic Movement.
I’ve had a highly sensitive and dysregulated nervous system for many years. This would cause me to go into survival mode almost on a daily basis. Thus, to help you ground, I wanted to share with you techniques that have worked for me the best.
Table of Contents
1. 5-4-3-2-1 Technique
The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a grounding exercise often used to manage anxiety, panic attacks, and getting caught up in survival mode (or fight-or-flight).
This technique is designed to help you reconnect with the present moment by engaging all five of your senses. It might sound quite simple (and maybe silly) at first, but when you find yourself in survival mode, this grounding technique can really help bring you back to the here and now.
When I get caught up in survival mode, I feel completely disconnected from the real world. Everything around me feels like a dream and I also have a feeling of detachment from my body.
This technique has really helped me ground and not get lost in my mind or this “dreamy/unreal” state of survival mode.
How to do the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique
- 5 Things You Can See: Look around and identify five things in your surroundings. It could be a pen on the table, a cloud in the sky, or the chair on which you’re sitting.
- 4 Things You Can Touch: Focus on the four things you can touch or are currently touching. It might be the texture of the sweater you’re wearing, the warmth of a mug, or the softness of a blanket.
- 3 Things You Can Hear: Listen closely to the sounds around you and identify three sounds that you hear. It might be the cars driving outside the window, the hum of an air conditioner, or the breathing of your puppy.
- 2 Things You Can Smell: If possible, identify two distinct smells. It might be the scent of food, a nearby flower, or even the aroma of a book or a magazine.
- 1 Things You Can Taste: If you have a beverage or snack handy, take a moment to taste it. If not, you can simply be aware of the current taste in your mouth.
Next time you find yourself getting into survival mode, try this technique. What also helps me is folding my fingers one by one as I do the exercise & making sure I don’t get lost or distracted.
Safe Place Visualization
My therapist introduced me to this practice 3 years ago when I just started working with her. I could barely regulate my emotions and I would constantly go into survival mode and not know how to cope.
She introduced me to the Safe Place Visualization technique which is a grounding technique that helps you relax, feel safe, and soothes your nervous system so you can get out of the fight-or-flight state.
You can do this visualization anywhere as long as you’re able to close your eyes. Try to focus on engaging all five of your senses as you go into the world of your imagination.
How to do the Safe Place Visualization
- Find a comfortable position: Sit comfortably on a chair, bed, or on the floor. If it’s more comfortable for you, you can also lay down. Take a few slow breaths and then close your eyes.
- Close your eyes: Take a few slow, deep breaths to center yourself.
- Imagine a safe environment: Imagine a place that feels safe, calming, and peaceful to you. This can be a place you’ve been to, a place you’ve dreamed of, or a place you’ve seen in a movie or read about. It could be a beach, a forest, a cozy cabin with a fireplace, or even a floating cloud.
- Engage all your sense: What does this place look like? Notice the colors, shapes, and any movement in the environment like swaying trees or leaves rustling. What sounds are present? It might be the chirping of birds or the sound of water. Are there any sensations on your skin? It could be the warmth of the sun or a cool breeze. Are there any distinct aromas? The saltness of the sea or the fragrance of flowers. Can you taste anything? Maybe the fresh air has a particular taste or you’re sipping on a fresh drink.
- Introduce positives: Think about the things that make you feel safe, relaxed and happy in this place. It might be a soft blanket, a protective barrier, a friendly animal companion, or the presence of a loved one.
- Stay and relax: Spend a few moments (or longer, if you’d like) soaking in the sensations and feelings of safety and comfort. Allow the anxiety and stress to melt away, replaced with the serenity of your environment.
- Transition back: When you’re ready to leave your safe place, take a ew ore deep breaths, thank this safe place for taking care of you, and gradually become aware of your real surroundings. Open your eyes, stretch a little if needed, and take this feeling of being in a safe place with you throughout your day.
It’s important to practice this visualization regularly, especially during non-stressful times. My therapist would tell me to do this visualization daily, especially if I was in a good mood.
This way, I begin to train my body to associate my safe place with feeling good, safe, and calm. If you do this practice for the first time in a high state of survival mode, it might be difficult for you to fully surrender and relax.
Therefore, practice this visualization when you feel good, so it’s more effective when you need to get out of the survival mode.
Wim Hof Breathing
Wim Hoff, often referred to as “The Iceman”, is a Dutch extreme athlete known for his ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures.
He attributes his feats to a combination of meditation, exposure to cold, and a specific breathing technique he developed, now widely known as the “Wim Hof Method.”
The Wim Hof breathing technique is a core component of this method. I’ve been using this grounding technique to help me ease my anxiety and panic attacks whenever I find myself stuck in survival mode.
I will write down the written instructions below. However, if you’ve never done this breathing technique before, I highly recommend watching this introduction video where Wim Hof explains how to do this breathing technique.
Afterwards, you can use this guided Wim Hof Breathing video which is a guided audio track for the whole practice.
How to do the Wim Hof Breathing Exercise
- Deep Breaths: Take 30 to 40 deep breaths, inhaling fully through the mouth and then exhaling through the mouth without fully letting all the air out. This is often described as “fully in, but not fully out.” It can result in a lightheaded or tingling sensation.
- Hold After Exhalation: After the last exhale, hold your breath for as long as you comfortably can. This breath retention can be anywhere from a minute to several minutes, depending on the individual and their level of practice.
- Inhale and Hold: After the breath retention phase, take a deep breath in and hold it for around 15 seconds.
- Release: Exhale and then return to normal breathing.
- Repeat: The cycle can be repeated for multiple rounds, usually three to four times per session.
Again – I highly recommend watching his explanation video if you’ve never done this practice before. I should also mention that you may experience a variety of physical and emotional sensations.
You may feel tingling in your body, feeling lightheaded, your hands clenching, or your body even shaking. Emotionally, you may feel a release in a form of crying or laughing.
When I get reaaalllyyyy stuck in my survival state and struggle to ground myself just with visualization or “mental practices”, this physical grounding technique is my go-to. It really relaxed my body and allows me to shake out or cry-out the fear and anxiety that I may be feeling.
Tree Visualization Technique
The tree visualization is a grounding technique often used to promote feelings of stability, rootedness, and connection to the earth and ourselves.
By visualizing yourself as a tree, you can draw upon the symbolic strength and tranquility trees represent. When we are in a state of survival, panic, and fear, we can very detached from our bodies and might get stuck in our heads.
Therefore, this visualization can will help us ground, come back into our bodies, and feel centred, strong, and relaxed.
How to do the Tree Visualization Technique
- Find a Comfortable Position: This can be sitting on a chair with feet flat on the ground, sitting cross-legged, or standing. Ensure your spine is straight, allowing energy to flow freely.
- Begin with Deep Breaths: Close your eyes and take several deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. This helps to center your focus and calm the mind.
- Visualize Your Spine as a Trunk: Imagine your spine or your entire body as the sturdy trunk of a tree. Feel the stability and strength in this trunk.
- Grow Your Roots: Visualize roots growing from the base of your spine or feet, delving deep into the earth. Feel them anchoring you, providing stability. With every exhale, imagine these roots going deeper through all the layers or earth and also growing wider.
- Draw Up Earth’s Energy: As you inhale, visualize drawing up nourishing, bright energy from the earth through your roots, filling your body with vitality and strength.
- Expand Your Branches: Imagine branches growing from your shoulders and head, reaching up towards the sky. Feel them stretching upwards and outwards, seeking light and air.
- Exchange Energy with the Sky: As you breathe in, imagine drawing down the energy of the sky or universe through your branches, filling your body with lightness and clarity. As you exhale, release any unwanted energy or tension, letting it flow out through your roots into the earth.
- Stay Connected: Spend a few minutes experiencing the connection between the earth below and the sky above. Feel the balanced energy, being both anchored and uplifted.
- Gradual Return: Slowly become aware of your physical surroundings, the room you’re in, the ground beneath you. Take a few more deep breaths and, when you’re ready, open your eyes.
I love this practice. I always feel lighter and more energized as I draw up Earth’s energy through the roots and then soak in the energy through the branches from the sky and the sun.
This practice can be especially useful if you find yourself in a survival state at work or a public location, and cannot sit down or close your eyes. You can do this practice with your eyes open as well.
Cathartic movement refers to the use of physical motion, typically dance or other expressive movement, to release pent-up emotions and achieve emotional purification or catharsis.
As mentioned, when we are in survival mode, very often we get disconnected from our bodies and get stuck in our heads. We may feel a sense of panic, dreaminess, and feel that our body or our environment is not fully “real.”
As someone who has struggled for many years with being in a survival mode / fight-or-flight almost every day, I’ve found that cathartic movement has really helped me release my fear physically.
Our bodies and our emotions are linked. Therefore, as you go through the physical movement, you may feel that you want to yell or cry. Allow yourself to do this! This is part of self-regulation and getting your body out of the survival state and into a state of relaxation.
How You Can Use Cathartic Movement
Instead of giving you a step-by-step guide on one way to do cathartic movement, I wanted to share with you a couple of different approaches that have worked for me.
- Dance: In this scenario, don’t think of dance as something that needs to be rhythmic or beautiful. Put on some music and move in whatever way feels good (I love this playlist, it’s very primal and grounding). Shake, roll on the floor, move your limbs in all ways, crawl on the floor, jump around, etc. Go as slow or fast, smooth or erratic as you want. Release all the tension and fear that may be in your body.
- Shake: This practice is specifically about shaking your body to self-regulate and soothe your nervous system. Dogs often shake or shiver following a stressful or anxiety-inducing event. This behavior helps them reset their nervous system. Do the same! Start by shaking your legs, then move onto your hips, torso, and then add in your arms and your head.
- Yelling: I wanted to include this as part of the cathartic movement technique, because this grounding technique is like no other. If you have the space & freedom to fully yell in the safe environment – good for you! However, for those of us that have neighbors, go grab a pillow and yell into it. You can sit or crouch down on the bed/floor and yell into a pillow with all your power. Release the panic and fear you may be feeling.
Sometimes a safe place visualization will help you calm down and get out of survival mode, other times managing survival mode includes simply yelling into a pillow or crawling on the floor.
Listen to your body and evaluate just how intense and severe your state is.
You Can Heal
I know just how uncomfortable and scary being in survival mode can feel. After all, I was in this state almost on a daily basis for years. However, I want to reassure you that it is possible to heal and learn how to soothe your nervous system.
Managing survival mode is possible, and with time, you can lessen the frequency and severity of these highly emotional experiences.
I hope these 5 grounding techniques will help you. Try them all and stick with the ones that feel the best + help you the most.
To help understand where your fear and anxiety might be coming from, consider looking into some inner child work. It could really help you connect lots of dots between what you’re experiencing and where it’s coming from.