The Caveman Rules of Survival: How to Overcome Subconscious Instincts That Don’t Work in the Modern Day


By Dawn Walton

Guest writer for Wake Up World

Our subconscious is in charge at least 90% of the time. It keeps our bodies working: our hearts pump without us having to think “beat, beat, beat, beat”, we can walk without thinking about moving our muscles, and when a virus attacks our system, our subconscious fights the virus automatically. It does lots of things to keep you safe and well internally, but it’s also looking after you externally; it is looking out for things, and patterns, that are going to cause you harm that are outside your body and kicks off a protective response when it “thinks” something is going to hurt you.

The problem is: we are working on outdated survival instincts that come from the caveman days. When they trigger, we reach an alert point at which the brain says “quick, take evasive action, something is going to kill you!!!”… and the first thing it does is switch the conscious brain off. Conscious thinking is simply too slow for a genuine survival situation, so the subconscious takes over and we lose control; we lose our Self until the threat has passed – then beat ourselves up for losing control to the primitive protective instinct of the subconscious.

Our brains need a software upgrade — and it starts with understanding the Caveman Rules of Survival and why they no longer work in the modern day.

The Caveman Rules of Survival:


When you are being attacked by the Sabre Toothed Tiger you don’t have time to evaluate if you have your best spear with you or if the terrain is suitable for running away…you just have to react. So the subconscious is designed to act without thinking. To trigger a physical response that will prevent you from getting hurt

Why this doesn’t work in the modern day:

These days there are no predators. So we don’t need to trigger a physical reaction to survive. In fact, the risk of being hurt that our subconscious is now using is emotional hurt. And the subconscious is a primitive emotional brat. So a primitive emotional brat is trying to protect us from emotional hurt by making our heart race, our breathing speed up and generally get us ready for Flight, Fight or Freeze.


If our parents didn’t connect with us in the caveman days then we wouldn’t get fed and we would die. So it was critical that as children we behaved in whatever way was necessary to create the strongest connection with our parents.

Why this doesn’t work in the modern day:

Generally, whatever our connection with our parents, we still get fed. Society will ensure we are looked after and not left for the beasties. However caveman rules dictate that as we grow up we do whatever is necessary to please our parents and so every interaction is evaluated to ensure our behaviours don’t mean that our parents love us less. So for example if your mum is having a really bad day and happens to shout at you just at the moment you ask for help with your homework…according to caveman rule you might think “If I ask for help my mother shouts at me, which means if I ask for help she won’t love me. Not being loved means I’ll die so the best solution is to not ask for help anymore”


Humans are inherently weak in many ways. The best way to survive is to be part of a pack. The pack will protect us as long as we pull our weight. So it’s important to fit in and be part of a pack

Why this doesn’t work in the modern day:

We don’t have to fit in to survive. In modern society it is possible to survive without anyone else’s help. And yet the caveman need to fit in means that we are genetically programmed to try and fit in – especially when we are children. Being singled out as different for anything is generally regarded by the subconscious as a bad thing, even if you don’t consciously care. When the subconscious thinks something is threatening your survival it will go into protection mode and do everything it can to try and prevent you from getting hurt. So you may find a constant internal battle going on between what you want and what your brain believes you need to survive.

Dawn Walton: The Caveman Rules of Survival — TEDxDundee

A Simple Trick to Re-Engage Cognitive Function

When the Caveman Rules of Survival are triggered, our cognitive function is disengaged by our subconscious. But you can trick your subconscious and regain control.

The link between the mind and body is two-way. The mind instructs the body, but the body also instructs the mind.

One of the aspects of the subconscious ‘fight or flight’ response is a shortness of breath, so when you notice the physical symptoms, or sense that you are losing conscious control of the situation, you can use this breathing exercise to send a message from your body to your brain:

  1. Breathe in for the count of 2 and out for the count of 2
  2. Breathe in for the count of 3 and out for the count of 3
  3. Breathe in for the count of 4 and out for the count of 4
  4. Breathe in for the count of 5 and out for the count of 5
  5. Breathe in for the count of 6 and out for the count of 4
  6. Breathe in for the count of 7 and out for the count of 7
  7. Repeat for as long as you need to up to the count of 10

This simple trick will get your subconscious to stand down. This allows you to regain cognitive thinking. Once you have your thinking brain back, you can re-interpret that physical sensation as excitement, or just anticipation of something unknown, re-engage your cognitive function and override the subconscious Caveman Rules of Survival.

The Caveman Rules of Survival

A book by author and therapist Dawn Walton…

Dawn Walton - The Caveman Rules of Survival

The subconscious is overdue a software upgrade. This primitive and emotional part of your brain follows rules for keeping you safe and well based on the caveman days, where sabre-toothed tigers and other predators were the biggest threat. If you have ever had a battle going on in your head between what you believe you want to do, and the part of you that seems to hold you back, then this book – The Caveman Rules of Survival – is for you.

“This is a fantastic book. It is simple, straight to the point, and offers great advice for people wishing to feel happy and get more in control of their lives.” ~ Dr. David Hamilton, best selling author.

‘The Caveman Rules of Survival’ is available on and

About the author:

Dawn Walton is an author, public speaker and therapist based in the UK. Her passion in life is to help people realise that being screwed up is normal, and that everything can change.

She is also the author of the book, The Caveman Rules of Survival.

Recommended articles by Dawn Walton:

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