This most basic of biological functions can also be one of the most powerful weapons against stress. Read the research, then try the exercises described at the end of the article to learn how to use your own breathing for relaxation.
You know all about human respiration. You studied it in med school. In clinical practice, each patient's breathing provides a clue to his condition. Whether or not you wield a stethoscope, a rapid, shallow respiratory pattern is not a symptom you miss.
But one thing your medical training probably didn’t cover was how specific types of breathing can be useful tools for relieving stress—not only for your patients, but for you, too. Whatever the source of the stress—work, family finances, etc.—it’s important for health and wellbeing that you take steps to reduce it.
“The perception in medicine, as it is taught, is that personal life comes second,” says Mark Bertin, MD, a developmental pediatrician in private practice in Pleasantville, NY, and author of Mindful Parenting for ADHD (Palgrave Macmillan, September 2015). But Dr. Bertin believes physicians need to take care of themselves in order to best care for their patients. To that end, he leads stress reduction sessions for physicians that use mindfulness meditation, incorporating breathing practices. His new, not-yet-published research shows how effective this technique can be. In a study of 65 practicing physicians at a major health system who completed an online 12-session program, Perceived Stress Scores (PSS) went down 27.4 percent, sleep improved 27.5 percent (per the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index), and productivity increased 47.7 percent (measured by the Work Limitations Questionnaire). That translated into an average gain of 78.8 minutes of productivity per week per physician, a net gain in work time for spending an hour in the class.
Not only does reducing stress, at its most basic level, make you feel better, but it makes you work better, too. “Left unmanaged, stress escalates all day long,” says Dr. Bertin. “You get into a ‘reactive’ mode where you are on auto-pilot, relying on routines and protocols. But you need to be aware and alert for the patient who is the exception, and that requires focus. Spending a few moments focused on something neutral like breathing allows the stress response to calm.”
Reducing stress can even improve your personal relationships. “Breathing techniques help strengthen the mind-body connection, which gives more control over stress, allowing us to better manage our interactions,” explains Ashley Turner, a marriage and family therapy intern with an MA in counseling psychology who is also a yoga instructor (and star of the recently released Element: 5 Day Yoga DVD, which includes a quick breathing practice in the 15-minute Stress Relief and Meditation section). Using your breath to reduce stress is akin to putting on your own oxygen mask first on an airplane before caring for others—friends, family or patients.