Summary: Stress is an essential part of life. It is the physiological changes that happen in your brain and body that keep you safe when there is a threat to your survival. This is the Survive state. The opposite state is the Thrive state. In this physiologic state, you feel and function at your best.
These two states are the core drivers of our health and our motivation. The purpose of the Survive state is to get you back to the Thrive state. The challenge is we are often stuck in a low level of the Survive state, without realizing how simple it can be to shift back to the Thrive state.
In this article, I show you a simple way to know which state you are in and how to use the Thrive state for whole-person health and lasting habits.
The root cause of stress
There are three primal instincts or Core Motives all humans are hardwired with: to be safe, to be connected, and to be enough. They are your core needs, subconsciously woven into every choice you make. In primal times, they helped us survive when we needed protection from predators and other threats in nature. While how we meet these needs looks different in modern life, they are still the most powerful motivator for how we choose to use our time and energy.
To be safe. Being physically safe is how you survive, so protecting your body from harm is the most primitive and primary need. Secondary to that is being:
- mentally safe by having the information you need to protect yourself
- emotionally safe by feeling calm and confident
- spiritually safe by being able to express who you are
When exercise or dieting or stress reduction promotes ignoring pain, fatigue, and hunger cues, they become a threat to your safety. Your whole person cannot help but fight against doing them, leading to low motivation. The more aware you are of your sense of whole-person safety when choosing what to do and how much, the more you tap into your natural motivation.
To be connected. In primitive times, being connected to a tribe meant you had a much greater chance of survival. In modern times, you can be connected in a variety of ways:
- physically through touch and non-verbal communication
- mentally by sharing thoughts and ideas
- emotionally through empathy and expressions of kindness
- spiritually through prayer, ceremony, and time in nature
This drive for connection is strong and can be an underlying pull toward or away from what you know you ‘should’ do to be healthy and well. For example, if eating certain foods is a way to be part of a celebration with friends and family, being on a strict weight loss diet can feel isolating, which is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to stick with long-term. When a plan takes into account this core need for connection and how you can still feel part of important celebrations, dietary changes are more sustainable and enjoyable.
To be enough. This is the sense of knowing what makes you unique, the skills and strengths that add meaning and joy to your life. In primitive times, this was tied to survival as well. Your place in the ‘tribe’ meant secure connection and thus protection from threats. In today’s world, a sense of enough can be expressed:
- physically by being able to do things you enjoy and care about
- mentally through your knowledge and skills
- emotionally through honoring the validity of your feelings and the feelings of others
- spiritually through a sense of something greater than yourself whether it’s nature, a supreme being, or the universe
When anything you do to be healthy threatens your sense of being safe, enough, or connected, your brain will resist it, limiting your ability to make it a habit.
Even more, when you sense you are not safe, enough, or connected, your physiology goes into a Survive state. In this state, energy is directed away from the activities of health like healing, growth, and learning. When you sense you are safe, connected, and enough, your physiology is in the Thrive state, where energy goes into being healthy and well.
The hierarchy of stressors
Stress is the physiologic response to a threat. Stressors are the threat. It’s essential to make this distinction. Stress is on the inside. Stressors can be internally triggered by a feeling in your body or thought. External stressors cause those internal stressors. When you can separate the stressor from the stress state, you can first calm the state to free up your logical brain to restore a sense of safe, connection and enough.
Those stressors have a hierarchy. The first priority is to know you are safe. If there is a threat to your safety, that takes president. A real or potential threat to physical safety is the most instant. Less obvious is the threats to emotional, mental, or spiritual safety. It could be triggered by your thoughts about a change in finances, job security, your home or a relationship.
The most effective way to handle those external stressors is to shift back to the thrive state in your whole person. We often think of it the other way around; take care of the stressor and then you can relax. But since your physiology has shifted, once you know you are physically safe, the first thing to do is to shift your physiology back to thriving. Knowing the nuances of your survive and thrive states is the key.
How do you get to know your Survive and Thrive states?
What it means for you to be safe, connected, and enough is unique to you. As your life changes, the meaning behind these core needs will also change.
This is not something you know in your head, you sense it with your whole person in the present moment. Your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual elements communicate constantly about your sense of being safe, connected, and enough. This is why just knowing what to do does not lead to motivation. You need to tap into what your whole person knows about whether what you do will lead to being safe, enough, and connected, right now, in this moment.
Being healthy starts with knowing your survive and thrive states
Since these states are the hinge point for health, being healthy starts with knowing your own survive and thrive states.
Since this is a whole-person knowing, it is best clarified by noticing how you feel as you go through your daily life. The first step is to read the questions below and notice how you answer them as you go through your day. Write down whatever you notice. Do this for a few days, staying curious about how your sense of being safe, connected, and enough changes in different situations.
- Safe: As you go through your daily life, when do you have a sense you are safe? When do you feel unsafe?
- Connected: As you go through your daily life, when do you have a sense you are connected? When do you feel disconnected?
- Enough: As you go through your daily life, when do you have a sense you are enough? When do you sense you are not enough?
After a few days of noticing, look over what you have written. You will likely notice a pattern or theme emerging and gain a greater awareness of what triggers your Survive State and when you are in your Thrive State. The motivation barriers to doing what you know you should for your health have their roots in your sense of being unsafe, disconnected, or not enough.
The three key ingredients for shifting from your survive state to your thrive state
In the survive state, your whole person shifts to preparing you to move to escape a threat. You can try to quiet the stress signals by thinking differently, doing a breathing exercise, or distracting yourself, but they don’t address the core element of the physiologic response.
The single most powerful act then for whole-person self-care is to do what your whole-person is prepared to do—move! If you don’t move, the survive state is likely to hang around for a while, putting your health and well-being on hold.
But not all movement takes care of this shift. Moving can perpetuate the stress state. There are three key elements to giving your whole person what it needs to shift from the stress state to the well state.
- Movement science: moving the way your body is designed to move with the greatest strength and least strain.
- Mindfulness: is paying attention in the present moment with openness and curiosity. It ensures your attention is on the signals from your whole person now. Those signals you need to hinge back to the well state are found only in this moment. This is the only way to know if you are in a survive state.
- Self- Kindness: talking to yourself and treating yourself the way you would someone you care about. When the survive state kicks in, we can often turn on ourselves, adding fuel to the fire. Self-kindness allows you to be your best ally, your own internal source of support.
These three—movement science, mindfulness and self-kindness—align perfectly to allow your whole person to thrive. They are the most efficient and effective way to shift from the surivive to the thrive state. Each one alone has powerful benefits for health, but each one allows the other to work better. The combination of these three skills are what it means to be Exercising Well, in other words, moving for whole-person self-care.
How thriving becomes a habit
Habits form not from doing something for a certain period of time, but by how you feel when you do them. Awareness of your sense of being safe, connected, and enough while doing anything for your health and well-being means you are more likely to feel better in your whole person from doing them. When you feel better right away, your body tells your brain this is an action to repeat. This is how habits form.
Now that you know that your survive and thrives states are designed to take care of you, stress is no longer a threat to your health, it’s an invitation to move mindfully as you are designed with self-kindness to shift back to your Thrive State.
The two states of your physiology are determined by your sense of being safe, enough, and connected. They are the hinge point for being healthy and well so knowing what it means for you to survive and thrive is the first step to starting any health habit.
This is not something you know logically in your head, it is a whole-person awareness. Since it changes as you move through different stages of life, awareness of when you have a sense of being safe, connected and enough keeps your Strive/Thrive cycle moving. The more aware you are of these elemental needs, the greater your ability to use them to spend more time thriving.
Combining the skills of movement science, mindfulness and self-kindness puts you in the driver’s seat of your health and habits for exercise, healthy eating, and stress reduction.
Click here to download my FREE Be Well Now app. There you will find a printable journal page you can use to clarify what triggers your Survive and Thrive states and many more resources for whole person health and lasting habits.
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