Checking Email? You May Not Breathe.

Checking Email?  You May Not Breathe.

In 2007, Linda Stone, a former Microsoft executive, realized that even though she did breathing exercises every morning, when she sat down at her laptop and opened her inbox, everything went out the window. “I’d be like, Huh, I just breathed but I’m not breathing anymore,” he said. His inhales and exhales became almost undetectable and shallow, he noticed.

Ms. Stone decided to do an informal study (“dining room table science,” he calls it), inviting 200 people to his house—friends, neighbors, family members—and monitoring their heart rates and breathing while checking their e-mail. About 80 percent of participants periodically held their breath or changed their breathing, he said. He named the phenomenon “email apnea” and described his findings in a widely read 2008 article in The Huffington Post.

Ms. Stone has since expanded on the concept and named it “screen apnea,” in reference to the breathing disorder many of us experience when performing all kinds of tasks in front of screens.

The problem is likely to worsen with increased screen use, says James Nestor, who examines the phenomenon in his 2020 book, “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.”

“You have 10 different screens open. Someone texts you, someone calls you, someone emails you,” he said, adding that we did not evolve to be “constantly stimulated.”

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

That focus and attention requires mental effort, which starts a chain of physiological changes including shallower breathing and a slowed heart rate to “calm” your body and redirect resources to help you focus, he says. He gave the example of a cat stalking its prey; often right before they attack, they will freeze and their breaths will become short. That, he says, is basically what happens when you receive an email, text, or Slack message: You freeze, read, and come up with an action plan.

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

This reflex is sometimes harmless, but becomes a problem when activated all day, every day, because it turns the “nervous system into a chronic threat,” says Dr. Porges. Hours of shallow breathing can leave you feeling exhausted after a hard day at work, he says, even if the job isn’t particularly stressful.

Lack of movement from sitting in front of a screen may also be a cause of screen apnea, says Dr. David Spiegel, director of the Center for Stress and Health at Stanford Medicine. Impaired breathing is the result of “a combination of not only what you do but also what you don’t do,” he said, adding that he noticed screen apnea among patients who worked high-stress hours for long hours without much exercise. or sleep.

There are some simple practices you can employ for better breathing habits, even in our increasingly screen-bound lives.

A few gentle audible alerts throughout the day can remind you to check your breathing, says Mr. Nestor.

Ask yourself: Are you breathing through your mouth (often an indicator of shortness of breath)? Are you breathing at all? Mindfulness helps you get out of it, he says.

If you find yourself breathing shallowly or not at all, try audible sighs, says Dr. Spiegel. Studies show that it can be a quick and easy way to reset breathing patterns. In a study published in January, Dr. Spiegel and his team found that while many breathing techniques are valuable, cycles of sighing – in which the exhale lasts longer than the inhalation – are especially effective for elevating mood.

Porges hypothesized that the bigger your screen, the less mental stress it will have. “When you narrow your visual field, you increase the demand on your nervous system to exclude everything outside of it,” he says. Responding to messages on a desktop monitor can often feel easier than responding on a phone, which “is a more focused narrowing of motion,” says Dr. Spiegel.

People will often step away from their computers for breaks only to reply to messages on their cell phones, says Dr. Porges. She suggests carving out a few moments to do things that don’t require too much mental effort — like listening to music — so your nervous system can switch from a state of focus and alertness to relaxation.

Adding physical activity to your rest periods — such as walking in nature — is another way to restore balance, says Dr. Spiegel. It’s the simple things, he says, “that can help our bodies work better.”

#Checking #Email #Breathe

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