Chronic Anxiety Is Not an Illness—It’s a Coping Mechanism

Chronic Anxiety Is Not an Illness—It’s a Coping Mechanism


“Anxiety is a message coming from the body, spoken in a language you are about to learn.” Two nervous system practitioners share how we can adapt ourselves out of anxiety.

Your nervous system exists to help your body produce physiological adaptations to ensure your survival. In other words, you have a nervous system so you can have your best chance at staying alive. In the binary programming language of your nervous system, the persistent question is: Am I safe or unsafe? And every single thing it does, from determining your hormone ratios to choosing a romantic partner, is always guided by this all-important binary question and the priority of keeping you safe and alive. If your nervous system perceives what’s happening to you as a threat (even if it’s not), it will deploy a predictable set of actions along a spectrum of survival (stress) responses biologically hardwired into you through millions of years of evolution. We know not all stress is bad, and after millions of years you would think this biological program of the body would be fine-tuned beyond safe/unsafe. But, in reality, there are complexities that can trip it up.

The Complexities of the Nervous System

The first complexity is that your nervous system is not appropriately equipped for modern-day stressors. You are designed to survive the African savanna and lions, not the urban jungle and the internet. Your nervous system literally deploys the same survival responses to help you pay your overdue credit card bill as it did to escape an angry rhinoceros 25,000 years ago. A response that would be carried out and metabolized by running for your life now gets repressed and stagnant in your body as you sit in your office chair paying bills and answering emails. Worse yet, the mismatch is compounded by the relentless barrage of modern-day stressors. Where our ancestors were only confronted with threats a few times a day or week, we are confronted by threats every time our ever-present phone sends us a push notification about a message, an email, or the most recent shocking news event. Essentially, modern humans are using Stone Age nervous system technology to navigate a world that moves at the speed of light, inevitably leading to compounded stress in the body.

The second complexity is that your survival functions are directed by your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which, until you learn the language of the nervous system, is usually unconscious, automatic, and out of your cognitive control. That’s why—as you have probably noticed, much to your displeasure—whenever you get triggered, even if your conscious mind wants you to remain calm, your ANS will ignore it and repeat the negative pattern it’s accustomed to deploying. So, without access to the language of your nervous system, using logic to tell yourself to calm down and expecting success is like expecting someone who doesn’t speak your language to understand what you’re saying!

The third complexity is that your nervous system’s ability to serve its purpose of protecting you is only as good as its programming. This programming is built on your past experiences. While most of us can barely remember much before our fifth birthday, our bodies have been accumulating and storing experiences and feelings for much longer. In fact, as early as week six in utero, your nervous system starts developing and gathering information to keep you alive. The cognitive function part of the brain is actually the last to form in a developing baby. While they enter the world with a primitive cerebral cortex, a newborn’s nervous system has already spent months developing and adapting. In a healthy individual, the brain takes information from past experiences and combines it with the current context to make a decision. But repeated exposure to stressors can upset this system, leading to ineffective functioning. Physiologically, this ongoing exposure to stress results in synapse (where neurons communicate) loss in the brain and affects how the neurons branch, which leads to poor connectivity and emotional dysregulation. Your brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, continues developing until you are 25 years old. During that time, every internal (biological) and external (environmental) stressor and event shapes the way in which your nervous system moves you through life, making all kinds of choices for you.

How Trauma Influences the Brain

As your brain is developing into your twenties, traumatic events strongly influence your nervous system’s programming. What defines trauma is life events that are too much, too soon, too fast for our nervous system to complete a successful survival-to-safety response. In addition, trauma also takes the form of neglect and can be thought of as too little, too late, too slow when the nervous system did not receive the support, regulation, and nourishment that it needed from the people it depended on (i.e. parents or primary caregivers). The encouraging news is that although the trauma that happened to you cannot be un-happened, its impact on your nervous system can be reprogrammed. As Peter Levine, the creator of somatic experiencing, says, “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”

Whether you experienced trauma or not, you are probably familiar with the following experiences. As a toddler, if you were scolded and yelled at every time you cried and were told not to cry, when instead you needed to be held and soothed, then as an adult you may not have self-regulation processes in place to help you safely feel and move through difficult emotions in a healthy way. Instead, your nervous system will activate a coping mechanism by utilizing well-worn neural pathways paved by the intense and frequently repeated behavior of avoiding the overwhelming experience of abandonment and fear. This could be why you may find yourself repressing, avoiding, and shutting down because your brain and body don’t know what to do with big emotions. Over time, repressing, avoiding, and shutting down feelings become the main ingredients in the recipes for burnout, chronic stress, and illness. If in school you were ridiculed while giving a presentation and mortally embarrassed, your nervous system will record that memory and be programmed to associate public speaking with danger. Then, when you are an adult and preparing to give a presentation for work, you may find yourself anxious, breathing heavily, feeling nauseous, and sweating because your nervous system is interpreting the upcoming presentation as a threat based on past experience.

Any time your nervous system perceives a threat, whether it be caused by an overdue credit card bill, an angry rhinoceros, a pack of mean schoolmates, or unresolved trauma, it will deploy the stress response to survive the danger based on how it learned to do this in your developmental years. You may not cognitively remember the experience, but your nervous system does.

Adapting the Nervous System for Resilience

A helpful, adaptive mechanism could be a behavior that effectively resolves problems and leads to long-term stress reduction, such as establishing boundaries or practicing self-care to achieve a better work-life balance. Conversely, an unhelpful coping mechanism may provide short-term relief but proves highly ineffective in the long run, perpetuating the problem it seeks to avoid, such as people-pleasing to escape stress, ultimately leading to even more stress.

Through this lens, chronic anxiety is actually not an illness—chronic anxiety is a coping mechanism. It is an adaptive mechanism developed by your nervous system to tackle underlying survival needs and perceived threats that are not being adequately addressed. It is the body’s way, as you’ve been reading, of trying to keep you alert and prepared to face potential dangers based on the map of past experiences or perceived triggers it is navigating. Ultimately, anxiety is a message coming from the body, spoken in a language you are about to learn.

2 Practices to Help Regulate Yourself

Use the following practices either independently from one another or in a sequence when you feel overwhelmed, stuck, and getting mixed messages and signals from your body. Over time, the cumulative effect of practicing these will tone your vagus nerve and help strengthen your nervous system’s responses for regulation and healing.

Box breathing

Box Breathing

  1. Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.

  2. Notice and describe to yourself how you feel before you begin the practice.

  3. Place one hand on your heart and the other on your belly to help you connect with your body through your breath.

  4. Breathe in the following pattern for up to five minutes:

    1. Inhale for four counts.

    2. Hold your breath at the top of your inhale for four counts.

    3. Exhale for four counts.

    4. Hold your breath at the end of your exhale for four counts.

  5. Check in with yourself and notice how different you already feel compared to when you started.

Eye relaxation

Eye Relaxation

  1. Notice and describe to yourself how you feel before you begin the practice.

  2. Bring your palms to your eyes and gently hover over them for a few moments without making any direct contact.

  3. Feel the warmth of your hands on your eyes.

  4. Take a deep breath in through your nose and slowly exhale through your mouth.

  5. Then gently press your palms into your eyes until you see a “light show” behind your eyelids.

  6. Gently release your hands. Check in with yourself and notice how different you already feel compared to when you started.

Adapted from The Secret Language of the Body by Jennifer Mann and Karden Rabin. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2024.

Chronic Anxiety Is Not an Illness Its a Coping Mechanism

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