Panic & Anxiety Attacks and the Nervous System

Our nervous system is made up of three basic parts:

  • Central Nervous System - the brain and spinal cord

  • Peripheral Nervous System - nerves that run to and from the central nervous system

  • Autonomic Nervous System - Sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric nervous system

  • The sympathetic nervous system is aroused by stress, anger or fear.

  • The parasympathetic nervous system calms and relaxes.

  • The enteric nervous system is responsible for the gut or alimentary canal.

Essentially, our nervous system not only keeps us informed about the world outside us and inside us, but it also allows us to react to it. Every muscle we move, everything we physically feel, and every tissue in our body is controlled or monitored by our nervous system. If we sense we are in danger, our body naturally alters its chemistry in order to prepare us for a fight or flight emergency.

It is the Sympathetic Nervous System which is responsible for causing these changes to occur. Its function is similar to a modern country's national defense system: if danger is detected, all stations are put on alert. These stations increase their area monitoring so that if the danger approaches a particular location, a message can be sent to the command center which then dispatches the appropriate response. If the danger is of only a minor concern, a yellow alert may be sent out. If the danger is more threatening, a red alert response is sent. While in the alert stage, the various locations continually update the command center with status reports so that the command center can adjust its response according to the status of the danger. Information such as where the damage is located, extent of damage, necessary troops needed to fight, amount of supplies needed and so on, is continually sent until the danger is over.

Our nervous system acts similarly. If we perceive danger, our body's defense mechanisms are put on alert, ready to act at a moment's notice. The degree of alertness is determined by the amount of perceived danger. Not only does our nervous system become extremely receptive, which instantaneously feeds our command center (the brain) information with which we can make quick decisions, but it also prepares our bodies for action by inducing into our bloodstream a "super fuel" for us to use in the case of action.

When our bodies perceive danger, our chemistry changes according to the amount of the perceived danger. This means that if you sense you are in a slightly dangerous situation, the chemical changes may be small or barely noticeable. But if you perceive you are in a life- threatening situation, the chemical changes may be extreme.

There are many theories as to the exact order of the chemical reaction, but the most agreed to is this: When we sense danger, a part of the brain called the Hypothalamus sends out the initial alarm. This alarm stimulates the pituitary gland which in turn signals the adrenal glands to release into the bloodstream a drug called adrenaline (epinephrine).

  • This chemical action has commonly been called the "fight or flight response". This process prepares the body for action. Some of the most noticeable changes we experience are: increased rate of breathing

  • increased blood flow to the brain and heart

  • increased heart rate

  • increased awareness

  • increased metabolism

  • increased energy

  • increased blood pressure

  • increased muscle blood flow and constriction of blood vessels and arteries

  • the ability for the blood to quickly clot

Do some of these sound familiar? It has been proven that too much adrenaline causes fear and anxiety.

It is important to know that every human being experiences this process to varying degrees when faced with danger. I repeat that the degree of perceived danger determines the degree of response. This process continues until the perceived danger has passed. This is very important to remember: Once the danger is over, the body -- if allowed to-- naturally breaks down the induced chemicals, which allows the body to return to its normal relaxed state.

This early warning defense system helps us to survive in times of danger, but unfortunately, if we continue to remain in the "red alert" stage or continue to push the panic button without the necessary time for our bodies to rejuvenate or rebuild, we can overwork our nervous system. Not only does our nervous system sense danger from outside our bodies, it also senses danger or damage from inside.

For example, if we are over-using a particular muscle, this muscle, with the help of our nervous system, will tell our brain there is a problem which needs attention. The message that is sent by our nervous system may be pain or fatigue. If we listen to the message, as we should, we would stop working until the pain or fatigue goes away, which is how the nervous system lets us know when we can resume working. If we do not listen to the message, further damage may result and the messages become stronger. These messages will continue to intensify until we are forced to stop the damage. In the case of a muscle, the message may be intense pain or muscle spasms.

Our nervous system is no different. If we are continually over-working the nervous system, it will send us early warning messages that tell us something is wrong. These messages may be in the form of a headache, stiff neck, fatigue, trembling, depression, tight muscles, insomnia, and so on. There are a vast number of messages that could be sent. If we listen, relax, and give the nervous system some time off, it will rebuild itself and be ready for more later. If we don't listen to the messages, they will continue to intensify until we can no longer ignore them.