By: Jonathan Pishner

Human beings have the most complex brains on the planet. We can contemplate the meaning of life, our purpose, the nature of right and wrong, and the universe itself. And if you ask any two people about those things, you’re likely to get three different answers.

But despite our complexity, there are some things that are extremely simple about us.

The most simple thing about humans is that we are all wired for Survival. We are keenly aware of whether we have enough food, water, shelter, or air. When we don’t exercise, our body atrophies and feels unwell.We generally have some sense of whether we are safe or not. When we perceive that one of these is threatened, we will tend to feel upset and worried.

Pay attention to the important word there. When we perceive that one of these is threatened. A person’s Survival need can feel unmet if we just think it might be unmet at some point in the future.

And because of that, humans actually have an extra item in their Survival checklist: Money.

One of the things that distinguishes the human survival need from that of any other creature is that most of us also require money for our survival. When we do not have money, our ability to have adequate food, water, and shelter is threatened. Almost everyone has had the sense of dread that comes with having too little money.

This means that if you live paycheck-to-paycheck, you probably have some worry because your Survival need is constantly threatened. In fact, being worried about money is a topic that I’ve worked on with many of my clients. By having no cushion, many people are one unexpected expense away from a panic attack.

To review, a person’s Survival need is unmet if they have (or perceive) a lack of food, water, shelter, air, money, and safety.

Important: Survival is unique among the psychological needs. When Survival is unmet, it is almost impossible to benefit from meeting your other psychological needs.

How can I meet my Survival need?

The steps are relatively simple, if not always easy:

First: determine where the shortage is. Most adults in America are able to access food, water, shelter, and air. If you’re one of those who can’t, that has to be your priority, because you can’t feel well when these are unmet. But the most usual difficulties with Survival come from a lack of money or a lack of physical safety.

Second: do your best to determine if there is a real shortage, or if it is just your perception. Humans are very susceptible to believing the worst is happening, and neither you or I are immune to those traps. The Survival need is there to ensure you survive and thrive. So you have to figure out for yourself, are you at REAL risk of death or severe injury if something happens?

As a hint, almost all threats to the Survival need are perceived, not actual. Because America has such an extensive network of social resources and safety nets, your Survival is rarely at stake. The common mistake is to see a potential drop in comfort, and assume that it’s an actual threat to Survival. Missing a meal is not the same as starving to death, and even losing a home is usually a very temporary situation.

Finally: fix the problem. For a perception problem, you will have to work on telling yourself what is true and consistently remind yourself that you’re not in any significant danger. Many people struggle with “what if” thinking, as though they don’t know what will happen to them.  The truth is, you almost always know what is going to happen when you stop and think about it.

Let’s do an example:

If you lose your job, which really happens? A) My family is poor and destitute and we’re reduced to living on the streets where they hate me until we eventually die. Or, B) Things will be tight and uncomfortable for a short time while I search for a new job, and we might have to downsize our home and quality of life for a while.

For almost everyone, B is much closer to the truth. The trick is, you actually have to remind yourself that B is more likely, because your Survival oriented brain will try very hard to assume that the correct answer is A.


Some people do experience real threats to their Survival.

For an actual threat to Survival, then you urgently need to work on your ability to stay safe. Fixing real threats to Survival is beyond the scope of this article. If you are experiencing an actual threat to your Survival, we urge you to contact the appropriate professionals to assist you, or to contact a professional counselor for further guidance.