Blood Pressure - Meditation and Biofeedback

Studies conducted on people before and after beginning a meditation program showed some startling effects. Once their meditation program was well established, their blood pressure dropped, their resting pulse was lower, they slept more soundly, and their cholesterol was lower. How can that be?

Think about everything you’ve read about stress: it elevates blood pressure, increases pulse rate, elevates cholesterol, and steals sleep. It follows that meditation must relieve stress.

Professor Herbert Benson, M.D., of Harvard Medical School, described meditation as the “relaxation response.” There are a variety of meditation methods, but all share the same basic characteristics.

Although a teacher is preferable, you can learn meditation on your own. Set aside a block of time, preferably twenty to thirty minutes, during which you can be completely alone. Early morning or late evening may be best. Find a quiet place where nobody will interrupt you during your allotted time.

For people starting meditation, it is best to have a room or even a large closet that is isolated. Some people start by using the attic in their homes. You might even use your car. Adjust your phone so that it doesn’t ring; turn on the answering machine.

Make certain no radios or TVs are within earshot, or shouting or other loud noises. Meditation is sometimes assisted by white noise. This is not music but noise that becomes a background setting for your meditation that helps you relax.

Meditation tapes of background noises such as a quiet surf or rain are often sold in shops and catalogues. Teachers of meditation usually have students sit on the floor with their back relaxed legs crossed, and hands on knees.

Alternatively, some people sit in a soft chair. In any position, your hands should be relaxed and preferably resting on your legs. Teachers usually assign students a mantra to recite over and over.

These mantras, which are, as a rule, more sounds than words, become the focus of your attention. You may also focus on a feeling, possibly even visualize a nice scene, such as a mountain lake. Your eyes should be closed throughout this period of reflection.

Anyone who starts meditation learns quickly that two minutes can seem like two hours. Rather than repeatedly opening your eyes to check the time, set a timer that doesn’t tick.

An electronic, battery-operated timer can be purchased in any hardware store. Start with a five-minute setting and go until it rings. Then increase the time until you are meditating at least fifteen minutes.

Once you achieve fifteen minutes, you will begin to notice a change in your ability to deal with stress. I recommend twenty minutes of quiet time each day. After you have meditated for about fifteen minutes and are relaxed, use the remaining time to reaffirm who you are and what you will become.

This self-talk should affirm that you will be optimistic and positive and that you will not allow anger, anxiety, or fear to take over your thoughts. This is, of course, not all there is to meditation. If you are interested in pursuing meditation further, you can find beginning and intermediate classes in your area.

Biofeedback is a method for gaining control of bodily functions normally considered beyond conscious control, such as heartbeat or brain waves. This is accomplished through visualization and the use of a device, such as an oscilloscope, that tells you what your heart rate is.

You visualize your heart slowing down or speeding up and the oscilloscope, by recording the heartbeat as waves on a screen, gives you visual feedback that tells you whether you’ve successfully changed your heart rate.

Eventually, through practice, it becomes possible to alter heart rate without relying on the biofeedback provided by the oscilloscope. Simply taking your pulse works well too.

Yes, you can actually learn techniques to lower your blood pressure. I don’t believe we can control high blood pressure by willpower alone, but if we can bring it down a few points, it is worth the effort because every little bit counts.

We always tell people to ask for the results of a double-blind study when someone makes health claims for herbs, pills, and nostrums. The reason, as you probably know, is to rule out the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is an example of the power our brain has over our physiological function. The history of medicine is full of examples of this effect.

People in a clinical study are randomly divided into two general groups: one group gets the real pill or treatment; and the other gets a placebo pill or treatment that cannot be differentiated by any method excepting careful scientific analysis.

Then, to complete the double-blind study, the investigators don’t know who is getting the real pill and who is getting the placebo.

Careful analysis shows that between about 10 percent for a very clear illness (enlarged prostate) to over 50 percent for a more marginal illness (warts), the placebo effect is about as good as the active material or treatment.

Of course, this doesn’t hold for something like appendicitis or a broken leg; however, it does for iron deficiency, an inability to urinate from an enlarged prostate, moderate depression, some visual problems, and even precancerous lesions.

Indeed, the history of the placebo effect proves that our mind has more power over our health than we generally recognize. You've learned to take your pulse. Find a quiet place where you can sit in a chair, preferably an armchair, and relax. Take your pulse for a full minute to get an accurate count.

Now, close your eyes and concentrate on your heartbeat and try to make it slow down. Do that for a full minute or two and then slowly lift your hand and take your pulse again while consciously trying to make it slow down.

Concentrate on each beat. It takes work. I can usually make my pulse go from about 53 to 48 in less than ten minutes. For me, 48 is about as low as I can get it, on average. If you’re willing to work at it, you can achieve similar results.

You must get in touch with your body, learn to feel each heartbeat, and concentrate on putting more space between the beats. It works. Lowering blood pressure by 10 percent is more difficult because you need a device to keep track of it.

Sit in a comfortable armchair, put your blood pressure cuff on and measure your blood pressure. After measuring it once, concentrate on slowing each heartbeat, reducing the force of each beat and the pressure between each beat; visualize the blood flowing back into your heart a little more slowly and not being forced out quite as hard.

Measure your blood pressure again and, while doing so, concentrate on each beat, the force of each beat, and slowing the flow back into your heart. I can get my blood pressure down from 110 over 70 to about 105 over 65.

In fact, at a recent blood donation I slowed it enough that the only way the nurse could get blood flow was if I did a constant rotational squeeze on the sponge rubber ball. Reducing blood pressure requires visualization and willpower.