It is amazing how we doctors don’t follow the simplest and most practical advice we give our patients.
“Don’t forget to Breathe! Breathe!” This might sound funny. But ask yourself, when was the last time that you remembered during your busy workday to slow down for a moment and to take a deep breath? If you haven’t taken one yet today, pause for a moment, and take a deep breath.
We know from our training about the importance of taking deep breaths to fully oxygenate the lungs. You remember from your third-year medical student surgery rotation about the importance of deep breathing after surgery to prevent pneumonia. When our patients don’t breathe deeply, they develop atelectasis.
More recent research you may not be familiar with supports the importance of deep breathing in maintaining our physical and psychological health. There is a wealth of science behind the importance of deep breathing and how we manage stress, our emotional states, and various beneficial physiological effects on the hormone, immune, cardiac, and nervous systems. (I’m not going to bore you with science, as you can easily search the studies on PubMed or Google about Heart Math).
Unless you have explored different types of meditation, most of us have never learned how to breathe consciously. Our first breaths came automatically as we were delivered out into the world from our mother’s womb. From the time we were born, our breathing has been on autopilot. If you watch an infant breathe, you will notice the different types of breaths taken that adjust to changes in environment and physiology. As we grow up and experience stress, our nervous systems developed some bad breathing habits.
If you begin to notice your breaths, you’ll probably become aware that you unconsciously breathe shallowly rather than deeply and slowly. Most of us breathe only into the top parts of our lungs filling only 30-40 percent of the lung capacity, rather than taking a full extended breath using all the muscles of our diaphragms and completely filling our lungs expanding into our abdomens.
During a busy morning at work, when you are seeing a dozen patients before lunch, managing phone calls and text messages, and interacting with your staff, do you take even the briefest moment of time to pause and take a conscious breath? I would guess like most of the physicians who I teach and mentor, you go through most busy days without considering your breath and its impact on stress and well-being.
Would you like to learn a simple yet powerful 30 second technique that will quickly change your physiology and help you succeed in your work day?
You can begin RIGHT NOW! Conscious breathing is simple, easy and it is effective at immediately reducing your stress.
I invite you to take a moment away from working or whatever else you are doing right now. Take a long deep breath, in over 5 to 10 seconds. Expand your diaphragm and fill up your entire lungs from the top of your chest down into your abdomen. Pause, briefly notice the transition between the in breath, and then let go, release the air as your breathe out. Slowly exhaling over 5 to 10 seconds. Briefly pause again when all the air is out, noticing the transition between your out breath and begin another breath in.
Repeat 3 or 4 times, again inhaling and exhaling slowly. If you find your mind wandering, you can direct your awareness and concentration on one aspect of your breath. For example, you can rest your hands on your belly and notice the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath as a way of focusing your mind away from thought and onto the breath. After several breaths, you can close your eyes if you’d like, and get into the sensations of what it feels like to breathe deeply. Taking a deep breath is wonderful reminder of what it feels like to fully be alive!
So my prescription for you is that you start with taking a deep breath for just 30 seconds five times a day. You can do this during your work day, or before a meal to pause in gratitude. The time of day doesn’t matter. I take a brief minute breath break in my office between patients, three or four times a day. I look out the window at the redwood trees, slowly and deeply breathing a few cycles before returning back to seeing patients. I’m always amazed how just this brief pause can significantly de-stress my day and help me be more present and connected with the patients I care for and the staff I work with.
It is important to remember that creating a new behavior change, such as learning to breathe more consciously and deeply throughout the work day, is a process that takes time to build as a routine into your day. Do not feel defeated if you forget. I have been a student of meditation for over 22 years and teaching for 6 years, and occasionally I have a very busy day where I will forget to pause. Most importantly, please don’t beat yourself up. Forgetting is okay. Be kind and compassionate to yourself as you learn and grow.
If you found this tool helpful and would like to learn more techniques, consider attending one of our continuing education retreats. Spend a weekend in the redwoods in Northern California or week on the beach in Mexico nourishing yourself. Come away with a whole toolbox filled with new skills and insights that will drastically improve both your personal and professional life. Prescribe yourself a renewing and recharging retreat experience.