Are you in growth or survival?


In the last post I was talking about how we humans drive with the brakes on.   Why would we want to defeat ourselves?   Seems kind of perverse.

Actually it makes sense if you look at the world for which our basic instincts and nervous system evolved.   When food was scarce, when predators (animal or human) threatened our survival, when babies often died, we were encoded to survive and to stay safe.

For example, our bodies tend to respond to less food by slowing down our metabolism—because in the past, less food meant famine or starvation so we needed to use less fuel.   That’s one of the problems with very low calorie diets and why if you’ve done a number of calorie restriction diets, it gets harder and harder to lose weight. Our bodies stubbornly hold onto the fat and the weight because the message is “uh oh, starvation conditions”.

It was a good adaptation when food was scarce but causes problems in our modern world.   Most of us here in the US and the western world don’t live in starvation conditions, we live with a superabundance of food.   This metabolic cycle shows how our biological systems, including our nervous system, program us to choose staying safe over taking risks and growing. As cell biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton says in his work “The Biology of Belief”, our cells can only be in survival or growth mode, not both simultaneously.

When we are in fear and survival mode, we won’t take the steps we need to grow, because that involves risk. It’s easy to spiral downward from there, as many people are doing these days, with fears about paying the bills, getting new clients, even losing their home through foreclosure, etc.

The first step is recognizing when we’re in the downward survival spiral, when we’re getting into fear, worry and anxiety—and that these emotions and perceptions are getting in our way. The next step is to acknowledge with love, “this is what’s happening, I’m in the fear cycle” and then saying no, “I’m not going down further.”

This interrupts the spiral. Finally, if you have tools for handling your feelings and shifting your beliefs and emotions, get to work using them; if not, I’m happy to help!


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  1. Steve Rice says:

    Great insights! I think having a powerful tool for bringing one’s self into awareness…especially in a “downward spiral” or other drama, is powerful. It changes everything…or at least has the potential to do so.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Glad to connect through the UBC!
    Steve Rice recently posted..The Value of YouMy Profile

  2. Sarah says:

    We drive with the brakes on when we go around corners- i wonder what analogy we can draw from that? When we are on a new trajectory we go slower? When we are unclear what is around the corner we go slower? Obviously it has to say something about centrifugal force. We need to slow down when encounterering new experiences or we will endanger ourselves? Were we going too fast in the first place? We also have to signal. Do we do this when working on our own. Are we aware? Or is it afterwards that we dim on? Just musing.

    • Ellen Shapiro says:

      Sarah: what a thoughtful response. Yes, when we are approaching a turn or uncertain terrain, we do brake while still driving. There is such a strong cultural bias against slowing down, even when it is the sensible thing to do! Does ‘full speed ahead’ make sense if the road ahead is not clear, straight and fully visible? Is there anyone whose road is that open in these times of change? I will have rethink that phrase but what I was referring to was how we slow ourselves down and hold back when we say we want to go faster, or simply how we create drag against forward movement.

  3. Jan says:

    Hi Ellen, I’ve never thought of things that way.
    Stopping to think now, it’s true when you’re hitting survival mode you don’t take risks. No risks no growth. It’s just clicked and makes sense – thank you 🙂
    Jan recently posted..To Comment or Not To Comment… Thoughts on Blog Commenting SystemsMy Profile

  4. Emily says:

    I never really thought about the fact that our basic instinct of survival actually plays an important role in how we handle fear . I actually wrote a post today for the Ultimate Blog Challenge about Facing Our Fears and touched upon the growing economic uncertainty, but it never even occurred to me to talk about survival mode and the role it plays. Bravo to you!
    Emily recently posted..Facing Our FearsMy Profile

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