What happens in your body when you read the word “survival”? What about if you say it out loud?

Survival has powerful and important impacts on us, more than we might realize. We’re hard-wired for survival. Learning a little bit about our nervous system and the Polyvagal Theory can help us understand this.

Our brains are constantly scanning the environment to assess if we’re safe, or not safe. Dr. Stephen Porges, founder of the Polyvagal Theory, named this consistent and subconscious scanning for signs of safety or danger neuroception.

When our neuroception picks up on clues that we might not be safe, it changes how our body is functioning, putting us into fight, flight or freeze mode. This prepares us, in the best way that our body can, for survival. It’s truly remarkable how the body wants to help us survive.

What can get us into trouble is that sometimes we can get stuck in survival mode. Our fight/flight/freeze can become our normal way of moving through our everyday life. This can keep us stuck, feeling like we’re surviving instead of thriving. Sometimes we have to teach our bodies how to feel safe again, and with the right support and tools, this is absolutely possible. Our bodies can get stronger in this ability to feel safe, improving our connection with ourselves, with others, and allowing us to experience more joy.

As you read through the following reflections by Dr. Rebecca Bailey, Jaycee Dugard, Margie McDonald, and Carmen Theobald consider what “survival” means to you.

Reflections on “Survival” from trauma therapist, Dr. Rebecca Bailey

Survival is a word that stopped me in my tracks this week. I mulled the word over and over, trying to ascertain exactly what it means to me, not to mention to all the people I work with daily.

To me, survival is very different than to someone dealing with housing or food insecurity, or someone held captive and violated violently. I have been more than privileged in my life. Even when my neighborhood burned down, I knew I would land somehow on my feet with good insurance, good friends, and a career to fall back on. My health is good and sadly job security is a sure thing in this crazy mixed-up world. But what I do know for sure is that in a single moment, things could change. I have the power of choice within reason, but not everything has an option. Sickness, victimization, mental illness, and the loss of resources can impact all of us. Survival is what you do when you really have no choice but to keep going.

I stand in awe of the individuals I have seen push through circumstances that I could never ever fathom. I have been told by survivors of the most heinous situations that you never really know what you could or would do. One woman even told me I would have never survived what her captor did to her. She spoke from the heart acknowledging her own bravery and at the same time educating me about self-regulation and coregulation. Powerful information to a person with a nervous system tuned into a sympathetic arousal channel. Survival to me had always meant fight or flee if you can, regardless of the odds. Of course, no guarantees – our nervous system can and does take charge, no matter how hard we try, but I might just be able to access the social channel once the moment of terror passed. Survival then becomes dependent on the social connection pathways. Something to think about.

Reflections on “Survival” from trauma survivor, Jaycee Dugard

I know a little something about survival. I spent 18 years with nothing but surviving in mind. There is a big difference when you feel safe in your environment and when you don’t. When you put one foot in front of the other just to get through the day, you’re surviving. I know some of us don’t have the luxury to live in a safe place and I was one of you for a very long time. For me, nights were particularly scary for me in my backyard prison. One night it was very dark, the moon was hiding, and I could find no light. Suddenly, this song pops into my head, you know the one by Gloria Gaynor “I will survive”. Well, that song became my mantra from that day on and whenever I felt despair and darkness overcome me I would hum it to myself. It’s funny the little things that became the most important and how did I remember this song that night, that I would sing with my mom so long ago? Our will to survive is strong and if we listen to the clues we get around us we can survive anything.

Now that I live in a safe environment surrounded by the love of my family and four-legged friends survival is not always on my mind. But one thing I know for sure: I can survive anything that comes my way.

Reflections on “Survival” from horse specialist, Margie McDonald

Survival is such a strong word. When I think about it, or say it, there is definitely a visceral reaction that I experience in my body. I feel it in my solar plexus, in my core. There is also a tension in my forehead that causes my eyes to narrow.
As I experience this, I wonder how horses “feel” survival. It is one of their most basic instincts and can influence their behavior in many ways. Since they don’t have the same filters that humans do, I can imagine the sense of urgency that can be activated by something that they feel and may put them in danger. When horses spook, bolt, or run, they are experiencing the fight, flight, freeze response of their autonomic nervous system. This is a place that has no reasoning, it’s instinctual and reactionary. It’s how they have learned not only to survive in the wild, but also thrive.

As a horse trainer, I wonder how many times I may have misunderstood this response with my horses. How often do we try to minimize or correct the spooky horse? I know there are things that I can do to help a more reactionary horse. For instance, making sure that their diet isn’t too “hot”, checking on their exercise routine to help them burn off excess energy, making sure that I am calm and focused so I can help them be relaxed and present as well, and more. Thinking this way leads to a more compassionate way of being and training. If we as humans who are working with horses could understand that survival behaviors are a natural, normal, and important part of a horses’ biological instinct to be safe, then we could have more empathy and clarity in our training programs. Horses live in the “now” and are always judging their world in terms of “am I safe or am I not safe”? This is why they are such great teachers of the polyvagal theory and can help us humans understand and realize how our own nervous system works and responds to stimulus in our environment.

Reflections on “Survival” from empowerment coach, Carmen Theobald

The most intimate moment I had with survival was in 2006. I was attending Dawson College when there was a school shooting. I remember hiding with my classmates under desks in our darkened classroom, hearing the shooter getting closer and closer as he went into the rooms nearby. The sense of fear was high pitched, thick, and swelling for all of us in different ways.

As I felt my body go into different states of fight/flight/freeze, I had a sudden shift. It was as though there was an energetic fork in the road. One path would lead me deep into freeze mode, terrified and dissociating. The other path offered a beautiful alternative: acceptance. In a flash, I came to accept that this could be the end, and I felt at peace with that. I was suddenly able to take a deep breath, support my dear friends on either side of me, and encourage them to breathe more slowly as well. I somehow accessed a sense of calm with the idea of dying, and simultaneously felt hopeful that we would survive.

That moment changed the whole trajectory of my life. I often think back with a strange sense of gratitude. Not gratitude for the actual events of the day or the tragic losses of course, but for the sense of surviving, and thriving, that it left me with. It taught me how very precious and short life can be. It taught me to make the most of the time that I have, and gave me the courage to follow my heart.

Now it’s your turn!
What does “survival” mean to YOU?

Dr. Rebecca Bailey
Author: Dr. Rebecca Bailey

Dr . Bailey is a leading trauma therapist who specializes in complex case scenarios. She has over 30 years of experience in the field and continues to be dedicated to the notion that authenticity, common sense, and kindness are the most important elements of effective treatment. She is a lifelong equestrian and animal lover who continues to believe animals, in particular horses, have much to teach humans about curiosity and compassion.