Checking Email? You’re probably not breathing

Published: Wed 6 Sep 2023, 11:04 PM

Last updated: Wed 6 Sep 2023, 11:05 PM

'Screen apnea' refers to the disruption of breathing many of us experience doing all kinds of tasks in front of a screen.

By Alisha Haridasani Gupta

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Dadu Shin/The New York Times
Dadu Shin/The New York Times

In 2007, Linda Stone, a former Microsoft executive, realised that even though she did breathing exercises every morning, when she sat down at her laptop and opened up her inbox, it all went out the window. “I would be like, ‘Huh, I was just breathing, but I’m not breathing anymore,’” she said. Her inhales and exhales became barely detectable and shallow, she noticed.

Stone decided to conduct an informal study (“dining room table science,” she called it), inviting 200 people into her home — friends, neighbours, family members — and monitoring their heart rate and breathing while they checked their email. Roughly 80 per cent of participants periodically held their breath or altered their breathing, she said. She named the phenomenon “email apnea” and described her findings in a widely read 2008 piece in The Huffington Post.

Stone has since expanded the concept and renamed it “screen apnea,” referring to the disruption of breathing many of us experience doing all kinds of tasks in front of a screen.

The issue has most likely worsened with our increased use of screens, said James Nestor, who examined the phenomenon in his 2020 book, “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.”

“You have 10 different screens open. Someone’s texting you, someone’s calling you, someone’s emailing you,” he said, adding that we have not evolved to be “constantly stimulated.”

Screen apnea is a manifestation of our body’s stress response, said Stephen Porges, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specialises in the autonomic nervous system. When we’re faced with any kind of stimulus, our nervous system looks for signals to decipher whether or not it’s a threat, Porges said.

That kind of focus and attention requires mental effort, which kicks off a chain of physiological changes including shallower breathing and a slowing of heart rate to “quiet” your body and divert resources to help you focus, he said. He gave the example of cats stalking their prey; often right before they attack, they will freeze and their breathing will become shallow. That, he said, is essentially what is happening when you get an email, text or Slack message: You freeze, read and come up with a plan of action.

The more unexpected a stimulus is — say, getting a text notification out of the blue — the more likely the body is to perceive it as a threat.

Although these reflexes aren’t harmful on occasion, they become an issue if they’re switched on all day, every day, because it shifts “the nervous system into a chronic state of threat,” Porges said. Hours of shallow breathing can make you feel exhausted after a day of work, he said, even if that work isn’t particularly stressful.

The lack of movement that comes from sitting in front a screen might also be a contributor to screen apnea, said Dr David Spiegel, director of the Centre on Stress and Health at Stanford Medicine. Disrupted breathing is the result of “a combination of not just what you’re doing but what you’re not doing,” he said, adding that he noticed screen apnea among patients who worked high-stress jobs for long hours without getting much exercise or sleep.

There are a few simple practices you can adopt for better breathing habits, even in our increasingly screen-bound lives:

Set up breath reminders

A few gentle-sounding alerts throughout the day can remind you to check in on your breathing, Nestor said.

Ask yourself: Are you breathing through your mouth (often an indicator of shallow breath)? Are you breathing at all? The awareness helps you snap out of it, he said.

If you catch yourself breathing shallowly or not at all, try sighing audibly, Spiegel said. Studies suggest that can be a quick and easy way to reset breathing patterns. In a study published in January, Spiegel and his team found that although many breathing techniques are valuable, cyclic sighing — in which the exhale lasts longer than the inhale — is particularly effective for improving mood.

Try larger screens

Porges hypothesises that the larger your screen, the less mentally taxing it can be. “As you narrow the visual field, you’re increasing the demand on your nervous system to exclude everything outside of it,” he said. Responding to messages on a desktop monitor often feels easier than responding on a phone, which “is a more intensely focused constriction of movement,” Spiegel said.

Make your breaks count

People will often step away from their computers for a break only to end up responding to messages on their phones, Porges said. He suggested carving out a few moments to do things that don’t require too much mental effort — such as listening to music — so that your nervous system can switch from a state of focus and vigilance to one of relaxation.

Adding physical activity to your breaks — such as walking in nature — is another way of restoring balance, Spiegel said. It’s a simple thing, he said, “that can help our bodies work better.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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