The Nervous System

nervous system

The nervous system is essentially the body's communications system, a vast network of nerve cells known as neurons and other specialised cells distributed throughout the body. Information about the internal environment of the body and its surroundings is received, processed and then reacted to. It is the activity of the nervous system that creates human experience. The nervous system comprises two main elements: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.

The Central and Peripheral Nervous Systems

The central nervous system comprises the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system includes the nerve fibres sent out from the cranial nerves and spinal cord to all parts of the body including the organs. Information is passed from the peripheral nervous system to the central nervous system and vice versa by means of electrical activity between the cells.

The central nervous system is effectively the centre of the nervous system processing information received from the peripheral nervous system and simultaneously sending out signals via the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is further divided into the somatic and automatic nervous systems. The activity generated by the somatic nervous system is under voluntary control, such as clenching a fist, whilst the activity of the autonomic nervous system is not under conscious control and relates to impulses to and from the organs and glands. The autonomic nervous system is further divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

The sympathetic nervous system is generally concerned with activity that causes expenditure of energy whilst the parasympathetic nervous system is concerned with the conservation and restoration of body energy. For harmony and a sense of well-being in the bodymind, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems should be balanced in their activity. The cat that one minute is stalking a bird and the next is curled up asleep is perfectly demonstrating balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

One of the attributes of the sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight response. This is a primitive response designed to protect from danger. When danger is perceived, the sympathetic nervous system responds immediately to prepare a person to stay and fight or run away. Blood rushes away from inessential processes such as digestion and thinking and is redirected to the extremities. The heart beats faster to encourage this increased blood flow, sweat is produced to cool the body, muscles tense and breathing becomes more shallow. Once fight or flight has taken place, the parasympathetic nervous system can take over again, calming everything down and returning body processes to normal.

Unfortunately, modern living means that for many people the sympathetic nervous system remains in a heightened state of alertness with the parasympathetic nervous system unable to do its job. For some people, this can lead to unexpectedly experiencing the fight or flight response in a lift, the underground, a meeting at work or in some other seemingly benign circumstance and the person wonders why they feel so strange. Those people who experience panic attacks are people whose sympathetic nervous systems are in this heightened state of arousal. Even a slightly stressing event can cause them to move into the fight or flight response. The panic attack is a manifestation of an overstimulated sympathetic nervous system.

Respond to Panic By Taking Control

Understanding that the nervous system is responsible for feelings of panic means that they can be perceived as the normal response of a healthy although overactive system. This knowledge alone can lead to renewed feelings of control. By allowing the feelings to move through the body unimpeded, they soon dissipate and the nervous system settles down once more.

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