The Effects of Prayer on Heart Rate

by Jonathan Lewis

When I first saw him, he was in a bed in the Emergency Department, but he was trying not to be.

He was ready to leave that bed and storm out of the hospital, and if he got the chance to give someone a piece of his mind on the way out, he probably would have.  He had been through a tough day. 

He was having problems with his breathing – bad problems, barely able to catch his breath when I came in the room – and he had been in the hospital bed since early in the morning.  When I arrived, it was late in the afternoon, and he was sick – not only sick of feeling bad, but also sick of the hospital.    

He had complaints to list for me.  He didn’t like the food he was served.  He didn’t like the noise and busyness of the ED.  He was not able to rest.  His shortness of breath was not improving the way he hoped.  He couldn’t get comfortable in his bed.  Staff took too long to respond to calls.  These and other complaints added up, and the cumulative effect was taking its toll.  He was sick, he was angry, he was agitated, and it was getting worse every moment.    

I did my best to listen well, doing little talking.  The man seemed more than content to have me stay in the room with him and receive his list of grievances.  I did not have the sense that he was interested in hearing suggestions from me or anyone else for solving his problems, so I tried my best to patiently go along for the ride. 

This went on for a few minutes, and then, as though he suddenly remembered that I had introduced myself as the chaplain, he began to talk a little about his spirituality.  He said that he had always been a spiritual person but had never really liked church much, especially as an adult.  He said that he sometimes prayed about his life and his illness, but other times he would try to pray and couldn’t find the words.  I asked him if he thought a prayer would be helpful now, and he nodded his head.

And then, we prayed together…

As we did, a visible transformation took place, and being in a hospital, I had a great vantage point to witness the changes. 

When we started the prayer, he was sitting up in bed, sweating, breathing heavily and shortly, looking tense and angry, and his heart rate, which I could see on the monitor behind his bed, was about 125 – higher than you would like it to be. 

By the end of the short prayer, maybe 3 minutes later, he was lying completely flat on his back, calmer, quiet, breathing more slowly and deeply, and his heart rate was around 105 – better. 

It was like he had been given medicine.

Of course, he hadn’t been given anything in the pharmaceutical sense.  Prayer is not medicine in any scientific way, but at least in this case, it had an observable medicinal effect.  We finished the prayer and he thanked me, and as he suddenly looked ready for a nap, I asked if there was anything else I could do for him.  He said “No thanks,” and I excused myself from the room.  Before I left, he said that he would look forward to my next visit.    

Prayer is no replacement for medical treatment.  In fact, in most of the prayers that I offer as a hospital chaplain, I am deliberate about praying for the medicine to be used by God, praying that God watches over the doctors and nurses and therapists, praying that God surrounds our patients with caring, skilled, and effective healthcare providers. 

Of course, prayer is only part of good spiritual care.  There are many other methods of caring for the spiritual needs of our patients, families, and associates, and each of these have their own stories.

I have seen it work in my life, both personal and professional.  I have seen it work in relationships and arguments, I have seen it work in hospitals during some of the bleakest times, and I saw it work with this particular patient.  I know that they work, prayer and spiritual care.  I can say from personal experience that prayer is a difference maker in almost any situation. 

I even happen to know that it can lower your heart rate.