Deep-breathing exercise used to ease patient anxiety

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The Positive Health Clinic at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh gets its share of people with an acute fear of needles. There have been patients who scream or even pass out during the nerve-wracking 15 minutes or more it takes to draw about 20 tubes of blood that will tell HIV-positive patients the state of their illness.

But registered nurse Terry Lang has found a way to help some of them get past their needle phobia: the deep-breathing relaxation technique she and 13 other doctors and staff members learned in recent training with the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

So far Lang has done relaxation breathing coupled with imagery, or visualization, of a nice place the patients would like to be with three of her needle-phobic patients. The results have been remarkable.

“The three I’ve done have been half-asleep — in a place where they’re half-awake, half-asleep,” she said. “Once the needle is out, I tell them we’re going to leave the nice place.”After a few more breaths, she tells them it is time to awake.

“They feel really positive, relaxed, amazed at what’s happened,” she said. “They’ve been petrified of needles. … (Now) they say, ‘We’ll never be afraid of having it done again.'”

And that’s an example of what mind-body medicine, also called integrated medicine, is all about. It’s a recognition that the mind, body and spirit all work together in the healing process.

“I think that (the needle phobics’ experiences) is a great example because the thing about this stuff is that it all sounds like a great idea, but people ask how practical is it?” said Dr. Betsy Blazek-O’Neill, medical director of Allegheny’s Integrated Medicine Program and the person behind getting approval for the Benson-Henry Institute training. “In certain settings it’s very practical. …

“This stuff matters. A patient should not have to come in and have a horrible experience every time they have their blood drawn.”

And a doctor or staffer should not be so stressed that it interferes with his or her interaction with the patient.

That’s part of the mission of the staff who had the Benson-Henry training: To not only do the relaxation technique with patients bedside and, eventually, with families in waiting rooms, but to do it — and teach it — to other staff.

O’Neill is just now beginning to hear that some of those staff have reached the point where they are ready to work or are already working with patients at bedside.

Oncology nurse JC McFarland, who has practiced breath work and yoga for a number of years, recently did visualization and deep breathing with breast cancer patient Ethel Taylor, 70.

“Let everything relax … Let the weight of your body let you fall into the bed,” McFarland said to Taylor in a quiet, melodic voice. “As you relax … begin by taking easy breaths …

“Breathing in … and breathing out. … Breathing in … and breathing out …” McFarland’s words had a soothing rhythm. “Breathing in … and breathing out … In that little space between the breaths it is peaceful and calm and still.”

Taylor continued to breathe to the rhythm of McFarland’s words. The nurse told her to put her hand over her heart and feel the part of herself “that takes on challenges, the part that gives you the ability to survive, to stay calm or to feel good about yourself.”

In that same melodic voice, McFarland told Taylor that several times during the day she should return her dominant hand to her heart and “connect with your inner strength.

“Now come back into the room with me. Bring peace, confidence and the pride you might feel that you were able to do this … five … four … three … two … and one.”

Taylor, whose cancer has metastasized to her bones, opened her eyes.

Later she said the breathing allowed her to feel “just the calmness over my body. This morning when I woke up I was scattered, but I knew I was going to have (breathing) so I felt relaxed … Now I have no cares. I have no worries … I don’t have any pain at all this morning.”