Open Your Parachute: The Importance of Giving Your Body’s Natural Alarm System a Break!

Driving down a busy highway. Having to meet an unexpected deadline at work. Caring for a chronically ill family member. These scenarios and many more can keep our body’s natural “alarm” system on alert. This process in our body is officially titled our stress response system and is designed to keep us safe in emergencies. When the body’s alarm (officially called our sympathetic nervous system), begins to scream at us, there is a chemical reaction that ensues. This reaction sends a series of stress hormones throughout our body, giving us what our alarm believes is the energy we need to “fight off the tiger” it perceives will eat us. Unfortunately, our body’s alarm doesn’t know the difference between an actual threat from something like a tiger and a deadline at work. Most of us have heard of the “fight or flight” (and freeze) process that is created when we are facing enormous or traumatic stress. When our body’s well-designed system sends these chemicals soaring throughout our bloodstream at lightning speed, our thinking brain can even shut down for a brief period of time -rendering us unable to think clearly or calm ourselves. If you’ve ever experienced this “fight or flight” phenomena, you know that it can feel like someone has literally raked you over coals or beaten you up from the inside out. Our muscles tense, our heart rate speeds up and we can experience nausea, lightheadedness, and other extremely distressing bodily and mental sensations. The long-term effects of having this natural alarm screaming can take it’s toll on our overall health. That’s why it’s important to be introduced to another vital part of our body’s protective devices – it’s called the parasympathetic nervous system. These two systems work in tandem – meaning when one is activated, the other is not. They are both necessary and finding balance for ourselves is the best way to ensure maximum physical and psychological health.

Think of the parasympathetic nervous system as the parachute inside us that serves to slow down that stress response and cancel the alarm. In this way, functions such as our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing can return to a resting and relaxed state. But, here’s the kicker – the stress response system gets all sorts of practice. Our body’s resting device, or parasympathetic nervous system, needs to be exercised with intent so that it’s ready to take over and do the necessary job of helping us rest. This rest is so necessary for our long-term health that professionals in the health industries have made sure we have access to the resources we need to keep our body’s systems in tip-top shape. Listed in this post are several great resources that can help you make sure you are taking the best care of you! Rest and relaxation are not just luxuries. In fact, the more you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the more you conserve energy for when your alarm goes off and you really need it! Rest and relaxation is as vital to our survival as air is to our breath! Many people have benefitted from being intentional in activating their parachute as often as possible. If you’ve not discovered the benefits of your body’s parachute system, try some of the resources below.

Apps for activating your parachutewhile the first two have subscription options for more choices, they all offer free versions of great ways to give your body the slow-down that it needs. Just go to the “Apps” section of your mobile device or iPad and pull the ring on your parachute!

1. Calm

2. Breethe

3. Breathe2Relax

Websites – 2 of the Apps listed above have great desktop versions for you to take advantage of –

One of my favorite ways to pull the ring on my ‘chute is to practice what we sometimes call soft-belly breathing (take a moment and google that one!) while watching and listening to a powerful video with instrumental music. “Weightless” was created by a group called Marconi Union, who worked with sound therapists to create a perfect way to bring our body’s state of relaxation in to alignment. Just google “Weightless Marconi Union” and you can find a short (8 minute) version, 2 hour version or extended 10 hour version for those restless nights!

Research suggests that walking through a green forest or out in nature activates our body’s rest and relaxation function. Other ways to activate the parachute include yoga and mindfulness or meditation exercises. Many communities have wonderful yoga instructors and if you’re not sure about mindfulness exercises or meditation, most mental health providers can coach you on these practices. Some of us even specialize in helping others combat stress and find much needed balance. If you’ve never considered being intentional about bringing balance to your health, try adding just one of these practices to your day and create valuable quality to your health and life!

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255

About L. Chris Cannida

I am a licensed professional counselor practicing in Oklahoma.
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