Sitting in the office at his medical practice, Dr David O’Hare was puzzled as he looked across at Martine. She had just told him she’d lost one-and-a-half stone in three months, without dieting.
He had tried to get her to follow a programme of healthy eating in the past, without success. He asked which of his colleagues she’d been seeing and if she’d taken appetite-suppressant tablets. No, she said, she hadn’t taken anything, or seen anyone. She had merely followed his advice for dealing with stress at work (she taught in a tough inner-city school) through breathing.
Although he wasn’t entirely convinced, O’Hare remembered other cases of patients who’d told him they seemed to feel lighter after taking up breathing exercises for stress reduction. Could there be a link between feeling lighter and actually being lighter? A specialist with 20 years’ experience in treating obesity, O’Hare had become progressively disillusioned with diets (almost 90 per cent of people on diets regain the weight they’ve lost after a few years).
He had begun to focus increasingly on stress management, particularly for his female patients, using the method of cardiac coherence breathing, which makes heartbeats speed up and slow down in a regular pattern. To begin with, he asked patients to take a few three-minute breaks every day, during which they were to slow their breathing to around six deep breaths a minute — measured by a simple kitchen timer.
After two weeks of this exercise, when the patients were used to the rhythm, he’d ask them to focus on painful moments from their day-to-day lives that had triggered negative feelings. They were then able to link these moments with the calming rhythm of cardiac coherence breathing.
In Martine’s case, it was the almost daily clashes with her colleagues that she found most stressful. What’s more, she recognised that she went to work with her stomach in knots. So without even realising it, she tried to deal with her anxiety by eating — thick buttered toast for breakfast, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks at work, heavy meals in the evening to make her feel better after a hard day.
Since she’d established a routine of cardiac coherence breathing, she’d noticed that she no longer felt pressure in her chest or the knot in her stomach. It really was as if she felt lighter. She no longer needed to quell her anxieties with food. In fact, the reverse — she became more open to what her body was telling her.
If she was feeling overwhelmed, Martine felt able to ‘talk’ to her body through the rhythm of her steady, low breathing, as if she were calming a child’s tantrum. And the surprising results followed. Allowing her negative emotions to be soothed by this peaceful process seemed to lighten not only her soul, but also her body.