Let Breathing Help Control the Body's Healing Process

Several remarkable studies of late are empirically proving that breathing is not only quantifiable, but that it is a powerful tool in the healing process and is your best ally in dealing with the debilitating effects of stress and illness. A recent Chicago Tribune article states that hospitals, including Northwestern Memorialin the Chicago area are enlisting the help of "health psychologists" to find nontraditional ways to treat patients with common disorders like cancer, heart disease and gastrointestinal problems. And -- no surprise -- conscious breathing is chief among them. "In doing so," writes the Tribune's Ronald Kotulak,

"doctors have had to come to gripswith something that many have been reluctant to admit: that a patient's beliefs can affect the healing process, and that the so-called placebo effect is not an exercise in self-deception, but an authentic biological reaction orchestrated by the brain. "Health psychologists are not like psychiatrists", Kotulak explains, who try to uncover childhood roots of emotional problems. Rather, their practice, called behavioral medicine, is based on studies showing that stress, anxiety and depression - which show up asphysical symptoms and are a major reason 60 percent of patients visit doctors - can harm the body just as directly as germs, artery-clogging diets, lack of exercise, obesity and misbehaving genes.

They are at the interface of psychology and biology, where what people think and their beliefs can either increase the risk of disease on the one hand, or restore equanimity on the other.  Patricia Mumby, assistant professor in the department of behavioral neurosciences at Loyola University Medical Center, is part of that new breed. A longtime registered nurse, she grew dissatisfied with medicine's half measure of care and went back to school tostudy psychology. She felt it was an un-tapped reservoir of healing."Patients are recognizing the (mind-body) connection, and they want more control overtheir own health care and their own well-being. Health care providers are recognizing it too and are more open to it. "The healing power of the tools used by health psychologists - relaxation techniques, self-hypnosis, biofeedback, yoga, acupuncture, exercise, coping skills - rests on two revolutionary findings by researchers into how the brain works".

One is that a vast network of nerves hard-wires the brain to all the body's organs in more ways than previously thought. The second is that the brain constantly sends out streams of hormones to regulate the digestive, heart and immune systems and then responds to the chemical messages sent back.This field of research, with the formidable name of psychoneuroimmunology, studie show stressors, and the negative emotions they generate, are translated into physical changes. The brain, for example, carries on a two-way conversation with the immune system, and stress can dial up such hormones as cortisol and adrenaline, increasing the risk of infection and delaying healing. Laughter and exercise, on the other hand, can release hormones that subdue inflammation and jack up natural killer cells, which may provide increased protection against cancer.

A good example is Delores Rogalski, a 57-year-old from St. Joseph, Mich., who underwent a heart transplant at Northwestern Memorial after dealing with a "plateful" of stress in a tumultuous four-month period, including a divorce, lung operation, her daughter's hospitalization, deaths of a close friend and mother-in-law, and her transplant.  Rogalski's treatment included sessions with the director of behavioral medicine at Northwestern Memorial, to reverse her downward spiral of stress. People try to predict or control their environment, says director Kim Lebowitz, and when problems pile up, anxiety results: They tend to concentrate on all the things that are out of their control.  Before the transplant, Lebowitz taught Rogalski mental and behavioral exercises to relax her mind and body. She started with slow, deep breathing, then moved on to progressive relaxation of every muscle system from head to toe. Learning to imagine pleasant things transported her mind into a safe, healing place. She imagined being on a beach or in the countryside, recalling all the delightful smells, colors and vistas. "I'm not anything like the person that walked in here," Rogalski tells the Tribune. "I've accepted my divorce. I've accepted the things that I couldn't do anything about. I put things in perspective in my life. That's the key thing. Emotionally, I was all over the place."  After Rogalski got her transplant, "I was having her imagine this powerful heart, very healthy, very pink, beating very rhythmically," Lebowitz says. "That was a very profound image for her. It gave her a lot of comfort and strength."  Clearly, mastering some simple breathing techniques to help control the mind and its ability to regulate your body's healing mechanism is a necessary tool for maintaining good health. To read the entire Chicago Tribune article, which contains detailed information about other studies, visit Mind Power

Written by Al Lee and Don Campbell