Why Your nervous system is working against you

Why Your Nervous System is Working Against You?

Over the last one hundred years or so our bodies are having to adapt to so many changes in our environment.  There have been so many technological advances and life style changes that our minds are having to cope with a whole new set of threats.  Nowadays these threats tend to be psychological rather than physical dangers. 

So how does the nervous system work?

The nervous system is divided into two areas

  • The voluntary nervous system
  • The autonomic nervous system

The voluntary nervous system allows us to walk down the street, i.e. your placing one leg in front of the other.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems.  The sympathetic nervous system sounds like the system that would promote wellbeing and calmness, well it’s not.  The sympathetic nervous system is the one that triggers all the nasty sensations.  The parasympathetic system is the one that relaxes us and returns us to a state of balance.  The two should work together in harmony in a healthy person.

What is the Hypothalamus? 

hypothalamusThe hypothalamus is the boss when it comes to our emotional brain.  Once this is stimulated all hell breaks loose.  It only makes up a very small percentage of our brain and it’s about the size of a pearl.  It is sometimes referred to as the body’s sentry.  It kicks the body into action if a danger is sensed.  It activates the pituitary gland which then stimulates the adrenal glands which helps us prepare for the fight or flight.

The hypothalamus will fire-off if a tiger was to jump out of a bush in front of us, if we crossed a road and a car suddenly started racing towards us and if a burglar entered our home.  What we don’t always realize is the hypothalamus will also trigger when our self-talk or inner thoughts indicate there is a danger.  For example if you were to do something wrong at work and your boss started to shout at you, your hypothalamus would probably react to this.  In other words if your reputation, ego, self-confidence is threatened (psychological threats) your sentry device will react.  Therefore how you react in your mind (your thoughts) have an effect on the hypothalamus.

There are other factors that can stimulate the hypothalamus.  When I went to the doctor suffering all these nasty symptoms related to anxiety one of the first things the doctor did was give me a blood test.  The doctor was trying to identify if I had an overactive thyroid gland.  This essentially makes you feel a heightened state of tension all the time. 

It is also worth making a note when you feel more panicky.  Is it after you have eaten something?  If you find certain foods are activating this flight or fight response then it’s definitely worth checking out if you have an allergy to certain foods.  A diet program is covered here and here.

The sugar problem

images3446reonIn order for the brain to function in a correct way it needs oxygen and sugar.  If not enough of these are present in our bloodstream the hypothalamus is triggered which produces adrenaline.  This leads to a whole raft of unpleasant symptoms being produced.  By causing some of these symptoms most notably an increase in breathing and heart rate, the blood sugar rate rises in the bloodstream.  Problem solved. 

The drawback with the above is when the body produces adrenaline you can feel panicky, anxious and apprehensive. The weird thing is although you feel something is terribly wrong, you know there is nothing in your environment that should be making you feel this way.  Therefore you may conclude that if there is nothing wrong externally with you, then internally there must be something wrong. 

If you are anything like I was, I would conclude I was dying of something or I was going crazy.  This of course produces more adrenaline and makes you feel worse!     In yet in doing this the brain is probably providing a defence mechanism.  The whole process means more sugar and oxygen can get to the brain faster to give it what it needs.  So the idea that a panic attack can sometimes help the body get what it wants is very plausible. 

So why don’t we eat more sugar if our brain needs it.  Well, it doesn’t work just like that.  The more sugar we eat the less the brain gets.  Let me explain further.

The sugar curse of the 21st Century

Some peoples sugar levels fluctuate more than others.   This can often lead to them feeling much greater highs and lows.  Sugar levels are dictated by what you eat and how often you eat.  They are also effected by mood such as excitement and stress as these tend to burn a lot of sugar. So how does sugar effect panic attacks?

The body needs carbohydrates for energy, these come from sugars.  These are basically split into simple sugars (i.e. the stuff you get in a packet of refined sugar, and add to your cup of tea) and complex sugar (Whole grains and vegetables).  Simple sugars are already broken down so your body does not have to do this, thus it is absorbed into your body very quickly.  Complex Sugars need to be broken down and are released much more slowly into your body. 

When you eat the simple sugary foods such as chocolate, cake, fast food, etc. the sugar enters your body in vast sums.  This is not good for your body so it releases insulin to remove the some of the sugar.  If you have been eating a poor diet for a long time your body has ‘trained’ to cope with these sugar increases.  It will release insulin to compensate and lower your blood sugar levels.  The pancreas (which releases the insulin) has become use to reacting to the intake of sugary food.  The problem with this is you’re getting highs and lows in your blood sugar level.  When the lows appear you will probably feel shaky and light headed, and feel the need for more sugary food.

If someone has fallen into this cycle and they don’t eat for a while, the body may need sugar because the pancreas has removed the sugar in their cells. In order for the sugar to be released from the cells adrenaline has to be produced.   If you add to this scenario that you’re not eating well and under stress, then your body is going to be producing a lot of adrenaline.  Unfortunately with the adrenaline you get the fear factor.  Palpitations, the need to run and escape, changes in breathing, etc.   Adrenaline adds the sugars, insulin takes it away. 

sugar high and low


If you look at the number one reason why panic attacks happen it’s not some hidden deep seated nightmare when you were a child, but a simple overload of stress coupled with a very poor diet.  The body is struggling to cope and that’s why we suffer all these strange sensations and feelings.  If we didn’t have the stress of the modern world, coupled with the fact our diets have changed so dramatically by modern sugary drinks and fast food,  the population as a whole would suffer a lot less panic attacks and anxiety disorders.  

Our bodies are extremely complex and clever, they often tell us if something is wrong.  If we run around on a hot day and sweat, we will start to feel thirsty.  What is our body telling us?  We need a drink, so we drink water and we feel better.  If you’re asking yourself why you crave sugar, well you probably do.  When you’re stressed all the time and insulin is coming out in full force its making you crave for sugar.  It’s a kind of vicious cycle.

Tip from the Trenches

If you have a big meal and you were to eat mostly the correct foods (which will come to later) the same effect will happen.  The body will have such a task in breaking down the meal, insulin will kick in.

Sugar Rush

A classic mistake to fall into is when you need a pick-me-up in the morning or late afternoon is to snack on sweets, cakes and coffee.  You will also be surprised just how many breakfast cereals which claim to be healthy are full of sugar.  Of course these foods give you an immediate lift but an hour or so later you feel worse than ever.  The problem is most people feel better after eating these foods so an hour later when they feel shaky they eat more.  By doing this their just making the problem worse.  The highs make you feel on top of the world and the lows make you feel anxious and jittery.

The solution to sugar overload

The solution is quite simple. You need to eat more balanced, nutritious meals.  You also need to cut down the stress in your life as much as possible as this will help lessen the fluctuations.  I would certainly recommend you stop having 3 main large meals (if that’s what you’re doing) to 5 mini meals.  Simple sugars are to be avoided at all costs, and these should be replaced with complex sugars which take around four times longer to absorb into the body.  Hence the highs and lows are steadier.  The body’s overreaction of insulin to sugar in the blood stream is called hypoglycaemia.  If you want to learn more about this condition then click here to find several bestselling books on the internet.

It is estimated that if you put one hundred average people in a room about a quarter of them would have low blood sugar. Only a further 3 would exhibit any symptoms.  Even with the symptoms the same person will have different symptoms on different occasions.  There are varying tests you can have for hypoglycaemia but why bother. The diet I will subscribe is a must for panic attack sufferers and if you want to see if you’re probably hypoglycaemic then drink a sugary drink when you feel shaky.  If you feel better in 15mins then you’re probably hypoglycaemic.

Hyperventilation & Relaxed Breathing

The way we breathe is strongly linked to the way we feel. When we are relaxed we breathe slowly and deeply. When we are anxious we breathe more quickly and shallowly.

Normal breathing

When we breathe normally we take in Oxygen (02) and breathe out Carbon Dioxide (CO2)


Exercise breathing
When we exercise our body needs more oxygen to fuel the muscles. We take in more 02 and breathe out more CO2




Anxious breathing
When we are anxious we tend to breathe more quickly and shallowly (this is called hyperventilation). When we hyperventilate we take in more O2 and breathe out less CO2. This imbalance quickly changes our blood chemistry (respiratory alkalosis) and can lead to us feeling unpleasantly light-headed, tingly in our fingers & toes, and feeling clammy and sweaty.


To reverse these changes, and to feel relaxed and comfortable, we need to calm our breathing.

Relaxed breathing instructions
1) Sit or lie down comfortably. Close your eyes if you would like to
2) Breathe slowly and steadily in through your nose for a count of 4
3) Hold your breath for a count of 2
4) Breathe out slowly and steadily for a count of 4
5) Repeat for a few minutes

Tips for calm relaxed breathing
• Make sure that each breath is long, smooth, and steady. Don't rush it, and don't grab at the breath (try counting "one mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi..." to get the pace right)
• Find the pace that is right for you. Experiment with breathing in for slightly longer or shorter amounts of time (e.g. in for a count of 5 and out for a count of 5)
•Try to keep your shoulders still. Breathe deep down in your diaphragm or stomach rather than up in your chest (you can practise this by resting one hand on your stomach - this hand should move up and down as you breathe)
• Practice 'little and often'. Even practising for a minute a few times a day will help you to relax.
• It is normal for your mind to wander during a breathing exercise. Just gently bring your attention back to the air flowing in and out of your nostrils.

You can find out more about Breathing and Panic Attacks here.


hyperventilation cycleHyperventilation or over breathing causes the person to breathe faster than normal resulting in too much carbon dioxide in our blood stream.   Hyperventilation can induce panic attacks and is often associated with lifestyle issues. It often occurs with laboured breathing. 

Hyperventilation can sometimes cause symptoms such as numbness or tingling in the hands, feet and lips, light-headedness, dizziness, headache, chest pain, flexor muscle spasm of hands and feet, slurred speech, nervous laughter, and in extreme cases fainting.  

I have hyperventilated hundreds of times. For many years my body was in such a state of stress that I don’t think I breathed properly all day.  Hyperventilation tends to cause more over breathing and will make you feel ill.  The symptoms vary from person to person.  For me it was unable to concentrate, heart palpitations, and feeling really spacey.  One day in my mid twenties hyperventilation became too much I ended up in A+E thinking something was seriously wrong with me.  I just could not live with these symptoms any longer.  Six hours later in A+E after not even seeing a doctor I was diagnosed with stress and still none the wiser why my breathing was so laboured.

Breathing causes us to intake oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide as I’m sure you’re aware.    But you’re probably not aware that breathing regulates your body acid-base balance. It sounds really complicated and if you want to go into more detail it is.  An abbreviated version is below.

Acid–base homeostasis is the part of human homeostasis concerning the proper balance between acids and bases, also called body pH. The body is very sensitive to its pH level, so strong mechanisms exist to maintain it. Outside the acceptable range of pH, proteins are denatured and digested & enzymes lose their ability to function.’

A more laymen’s version is the bodies fluids tend to be on the alkaline side.  In order to keep it this way the body needs to get rid of excess acid.  It does this by realising it in our urine and breathing.  The range of the PH level for a healthy body is actually very narrow.  If the body experiences too much acid or alkaline problems happen.  If you hyperventilate you have lots of carbon dioxide in your system.  Carbon Dioxide makes more acid in your blood.  This is called acidosis, and basically means your blood is too acidic.  If you’re stressed and your body is over sensitized the body tends to naturally over breathe as it’s in flight and fight mode constantly.  Hyperventilation or over breathing is very uncomfortable and makes symptoms even worse. 



You may be thinking we all have the ability to control our breathing – which we do to a point.   But if you have ever experienced a panic attack you will know once it reaches a certain point, it’s very difficult to control your breathing.  Your body will just reach such a frightened state it will automatically take over your breathing.  A cycle then begins to develop.  Your mind will start to produce uncomfortable thoughts and you will feel the need to escape.  When hyperventilation occurs your blood vessels restrict causing less oxygen and sugar to enter the brain.  Any person can experience hyperventilation but it is much quicker and common in anxiety sufferers. 

When we are relaxed we breathe slow and even.  The next time you are really calm just note how you breathe.  Your muscles will be relaxed and you probably won’t even realize your breathing.  You will be surprised just how little you seem to breathe when you’re relaxed.  When we over breathe we breathe in too much carbon dioxide.  This causes are body to increase our breathing to try and compensate to obtain more oxygen. 

If for example you’re at work having a meeting in a small room which is not very well ventilated.  On top of this there are lots of people in the room, then you may get elevated levels of carbon dioxide.  The brain tells your body I’m not getting enough oxygen in here so it’s makes you breathe a little bit faster.  To a normal person they would just take it in their stride and think nothing of it.  To an anxious person they are extremely sensitive to any changes in their body. They would internalize their increased breathing and think something bad is going to happen.  The scary thoughts would trigger even faster breathing.  A panic attack is then beginning to develop.

If you understand this then you can understand the facts of what is happening.  Hopefully you will not panic the next time you feel your breathing increasing.   It’s simply your body requiring more oxygen.    If you react with alarm to this sensation you will only make things worse.  Remember, hyperventilation is completely harmless. 

We have all experienced a blocked nose with a cold or hay fever.  When our noses are blocked we feel like we cannot breathe very well.   Feeling anxious when we cannot breathe properly is perfectly normal, but try not to worry. You can always breathe through your mouth and take some medication if you suffer from hay fever. If you think allergies are causing you not to be able to breathe properly then get this checked out by an allergy specialist. 

One of the many problems I had with panic disorder was the physical feelings of being so tense.  It made me think I could not breathe properly.    It’s a horrible feeling and a very common one.  To overcome this learn to relax and let your body go as loose and floppy as possible.  Don’t react with fear; you have to calm your breathing down.  DO NOT STIFFEN YOUR BODY AND TRY AND FIGHT AGAINST IT, IT WILL JUST MAKE THINGS WORSE.  

Other Articles you may like

What is a Panic Attack?

What are the symptoms of Panic Attacks?

Why do you Fear?

What causes Panic Attacks?

Why Do Some People Suffer From Panic Attacks?






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