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Take a Deep Breath. . . Everything Will be Okay

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Sarah came to see me after her Cardioscan showed a coronary calcium score of 120 - a moderate amount of calcified plaque in her heart arteries. Her mother died of a heart attack at age 50, which was just one year older than Sarah is now. During her office visit, she was quite anxious and distraught, so I said, “Let’s just relax for one minute. Close your eyes and sit up straight. Breathe in deeply through your nose for the count to 4; feel the cool air flowing in through your nostrils as your fill your lungs to capacity. Now let’s hold our breath while we count silently to 7. Now exhale slowly for the count of 8 and notice the warm air flowing out of your nasal passages as you gradually empty your lungs.”

When she opened her eyes, she looked at me and smiled in relief, and the color had returned to her cheeks. It is amazing how just one slow and deep, mindful breath will help to diffuse stress and relax your mind and body. Your heart slows, your vessels dilate, your brain settles down, and your blood pressure falls. And by the way, you just meditated - for 20 seconds.

I often do this one-deep-breath exercise with my patients when they seem stressed. The doctor’s office can be an intimidating place, and so it’s a perfect time and place to demonstrate the power of mindful breathing for calming one’s system.

So…Here’s Your Assignment:

One cycle is a single 4-7-8 breath as outlined above. So you need to do four or eight cycles at least once or twice a day; or more as needed to calm your mind and settle down your heart. A steady practice of this relaxation breathing has been shown to lower blood pressure as effectively as a prescription drug for hypertension (high blood pressure). Making a habit of this breathing exercise can bring powerful benefits to your health and wellness.

If you do this relaxation exercise before retiring to bed for the night, you probably won’t make it past four cycles before you drift off to sleep. It’s best to count to the rhythm of your heartbeat (unless you have Afib or some other very irregular heart rhythm). This takes some practice, but if you can feel your heart beating and concentrate on that as your metronome, it helps to keep your mind in neutral instead of the “monkey mind” stream of thoughts that generally pinball around in our brains during waking hours. In fact, the essence of meditation is focusing on breathing. Stay in the moment and try to stop thinking.

In Good Health,

James O'Keefe, MD

Picture Credit: Pixabay Creative Commons