Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain: What's the Difference?

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If you've ever noticed that the more stressed you get, the more difficult everyday tasks become, then you've experienced the difference between learning brain and survival brain. On the whole, the subject is a bit more complex than how easily you can or can't tie your shoes or remember where your keys are, but those little things are more based on our state of being than many people realize.

At any given moment while we're awake, our brain is existing in learning mode or survival mode. For optimum health, wellness, and happiness, learning mode is the goal. Ahead, we'll examine what the two brain states involve, what causes survival brain, and the steps you can take to move from survival back to learning.

What Is Learning Brain?

A learning brain is one that is able to take in new information. It also means that you're able to perform daily tasks that you're accustomed to without much issue, and that you likely don't find those tasks stressful or frustrating.

If you're currently experiencing a healthy life without anything major going on, such as mental health challenges or trauma, chances are you're in learning brain mode. This means that the idea of something new might be exciting for you, and that you probably feel open to new ideas. In short, a learning brain is one that is capable of, and often eager for, learning.

What Is Survival Brain?

Survival brain is what happens when you feel mentally and/or emotionally overwhelmed and you're unable to process new ideas. Additionally, you may find basic everyday tasks that otherwise would feel easy for you to be more complicated or difficult.

Being in a state of survival brain doesn't mean you did anything wrong! It simply means that your brain is so occupied with making sure you can get through life that you can't take on anything new at the moment; a survival brain is one that is focused on keeping you alive.

Let's look at the various causes of survival brain.

Causes of Survival Brain

Anything that overwhelms you can be a cause for entering a state of survival brain. However, there are some common occurrences that are most likely to lead to shifting into survival brain mode. Let's look at what those are.

Chronic Stress

Our brains are built and designed to handle stress, but they can hit a point where stress has gone on for too long to enable them to function fully. There can be lasting neurological problems caused by excessive stress. One study notes that stress can cause an imbalance in the parts of your brain controlling cognition, decision making, anxiety and mood, which can affect those behaviors and behavioral states.

This means that stress reduces your ability to do simple things like make decisions or stay in a moderate mood. That's not your fault, but rather, a biological function. So it makes good sense that you also can't learn new things when in a stressed state for a long time.

Trauma

When you experience trauma, just surviving from one moment to the next can feel like an impossible job. Just like chronic stress, trauma can change your brain for the worse, making you unable to do all you did prior to the event.

Your body produces cortisol, a stress hormone, in response to a traumatic occurrence, so the result on your brain from trauma is similar to that from chronic stress. One study describes it well in stating that "during a traumatic experience, the reptilian brain takes control, shifting the body into reactive mode. Shutting down all non-essential body and mind processes, the brain stem orchestrates survival mode." Trauma can also lead to PTSD, which we will discuss next.

PTSD

Suffering a traumatic event is bad enough, but often the trauma isn't over just because the event has ended. Post traumatic stress disorder is common for people who have undergone trauma, and while for some it resolves quickly, for others it can take a long time. Think of PTSD as a different version of chronic stress, one in which the stress is centered around a specific event.

PTSD causes very real changes to your brain, and an inability to learn new things can easily be one of those. Your hippocampus, which is used for memory, is affected with PTSD, so it makes perfect sense that learning something new would feel impossible.

How to Shift From Survival Brain to Learning Brain

Now that you understand what causes survival brain, you are probably interested in discovering how to make the shift back to learning brain so that you can enjoy life more and be receptive to new ideas. Thankfully, it can be an easier process that you might think! There are many ways to move your brain into learning mode. Let's review them.

Soothe Your Nervous System

Anything that relaxes you can help you be less stressed, and being less stressed can help you move out of survival brain mode. When you have chronic stress or PTSD, your amygdala is on overdrive.

Soothing your nervous system helps to stop that, which in turn will make you feel better. Yoga and meditation can be useful to calm one's nervous system, as can exercise. Any bodily movement that feels good to you, even simple stretching exercises, are useful.

Address Sources of Stress

There's no way to recover from the effects of chronic stress if you are still experiencing them. You can't get out of survival mode when your brain feels that survival is iffy and needs to be focused on.

It's important to address your sources of stress and assess if there are any that you can remove from your life. This may take time. For example, if your source of chronic stress is a job you don't enjoy or a partner who isn't kind to you, you can't necessarily remove either from your life without a plan to move forward with.

You'll find that taking action, even the most preliminary first steps of planning to remove something negative from your life, can feel relieving for you. The further you are able to go into addressing your stress sources, the easier it will become for your brain to move into learning mode.

Address Trauma and PTSD

If you have recently experienced trauma, or if you have PTSD, it's vital to make sure you get the help you need to get past the traumatic event. If you don't, you can get stuck for months or years in survival mode—but by addressing the trauma, you'll become able to move forward from it.

When you do, you'll see that you become open again to new experiences and ideas. There are many ways to address trauma and PTSD, from speaking about it with friends and family to professional help. Therapy, either individual or group, can be highly beneficial in resolving PTSD.

Rest

It may sound mundane, but rest is incredibly important for us to be functional as people. Moving from learning brain to survival brain is a sign from your body that rest is needed, and it can definitely help you move back into learning brain mode.

Your nervous system will have time to calm down, your brain will have time to recharge and process the information of recent events, and your overall spirit can feel renewed just by you taking some time off. Rest can involve you doing anything calm and peaceful, from reading a book or watching tv to napping or taking a bath.

Pursue Joyful Activities

Giving your body a boost of happy chemicals like dopamine is an excellent way to calm your system and your brain. Anything that feels joyful for you and produces feelings you enjoy counts for this one!

Whether you love to play sports, lie on the beach, take your dog for a walk, draw, make crafts, eat fancy meals at restaurants, or arrange flowers, doing what you love is one of the best ways to reset yourself and move your brain back into learning mode.

Doing one of those activities with one or more people you enjoy will only enhance the effects.

A Word From Verywell

At much as you might desire the shift from survival brain to learning brain, know that this process can take some time. Adopting multiple helpful practices may speed up the process, but be patient with yourself and remember that healing is never instantaneous. It's a process, and our brains can recover in amazing ways when we give them time and self-care.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.