It’s believed that many of us spend seven hours or more in front of screens each day. In 2011, researcher Emmanuel Stamatakis, found that “…even those who exercise can’t overcome the detrimental effects of too much screen time,” More here.
Ergonomists offer helpful suggestions regarding desk/computer setup and posture tips. Is that enough? How might screen time be affecting us and what else can we do to support health in our technology saturated lives?
In 2007, I was struggling with chronic respiratory infections and my MD suggested I study Buteyko breathing.
The Buteyko technique has been well-researched in Australia, the UK, and Russia, and has been shown to be very effective for people with asthma. Every day, I would do my Buteyko exercises before heading to my desk to work on email, research, and writing.
I noticed, almost immediately, that once I started to work on email, I was either shallow breathing or holding my breath. I paid attention and noticed that, day after day, this was the case. When I would get up and walk around, my breathing was completely different than it was when I was working on my computer.
I spent seven months observing and talking with others, and even tested friends at my dining room table, using a simple device that tracked pulse and heart rate variability (HRV). I also spoke with researchers, clinicians, psychologists, and neuroscientists to get a sense of what happens to our physiology on cumulative shallow breathing and breath holding.
I gave this a name: email apnea or screen apnea, which means, temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while working (or playing!) in front of screens.
I also noticed that only about 80% of the people I observed and tested had email apnea. Twenty percent did not have it. I became very interested in the 20%! The people who didn’t have email apnea were:
An IronMan triathlete, and other high performance athletes
A Test Pilot
When I questioned these people, I learned that they had been taught breathing techniques to manage their energy and emotions.
What happens to the body on email apnea?
There are very few studies that look specifically at HRV and physiological changes when we’re working at a screen.
Here they are:
- In 2009, Dr. Eric Peper, a researcher and Professor at UCSF, noted “sympathetic arousal” in college students texting messages on mobile devices. http://bit.ly/1tdF0BZ
- Researchers, Gloria Mark, Stephen Voida, and Anthony Cardello, made headway formally validating the impact of email, using heart rate variability (HRV) testing. http://huff.to/1pvbzYZ
In other research that looks at cumulative shallow breathing and breath-holding, here’s what I learned:
Drs. Margaret Chesney and David Anderson, formerly of NIH, demonstrated that cumulative breath holding contributes to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium, and as the balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide becomes compromised, our biochemistry is thrown off.
Nitric Oxide (not to be confused with nitrous oxide, the “laughing gas” used in the dentist’s office) has been implicated in immune function, learning, memory and cognition, sleeping, weight, feeling pain, and inflammation.
With email apnea, or compromised breathing, we tend to go into a “fight or flight” or stressed state. Consider: when we’re afraid, we inhale and hold our breath. We become hyper alert to noises and motion. The body resources itself to run from danger.
In a fight or flight state, the sympathetic nervous system, or the fight or flight nervous system, is activated and causes the liver to dump glucose and cholesterol and the heart rate increases. We crave sugar and carbohydrates.
If you notice that you have email apnea, what can you do?
The next time you look something up on your smartphone, or catch yourself responding to a text or email, notice: Are you breathing or holding your breath? Are you aware of your whole body? Or are you mostly aware of the keyboard, your fingers (and your typos!)? Are you holding yourself stiffly or does your body feel relaxed?
2. Take a break!
Get up once an hour for at least 5-10 minutes. Walk around and take a break. In Finland, students take a break every 45 minutes for 15 minutes and this has been shown to be effective.
Dancing is a terrific exercise. It can help with breathing, posture, and moving to rhythm.
Singing is a great way to learn breathing techniques and to improve lung capacity.
Earlier posts on email apnea:
Email Apnea; first posted 2/2008
From Email Apnea to Conscious Computing