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:
My friend, Julia Cross, a brilliant dancer, demonstrates how to get exercise in flight. What fitness program would make it possible for the rest of us?! Happy Holidays and safe travels!
This discussion of Essential Self Technologies was presented April 10, 2014, at the MIT Media Lab.
Special thanks to Pattie Maes for hosting, to Alex Bodell and Anthony Zorzos for helping with the demo technologies, and to Karthik Dinakar, who provided video and tech support.
(Yes, I mis-speak for a moment at the beginning. Oops! The sympathetic nervous system refers to our “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nervous system refers to our “rest and renew” or “rest and digest” response.)
Ethan Zuckerman, who is wise, kind, and brilliant, posits that people have a preference for using the Internet for banal activities, like surfing for “cute cats.” It seems true that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and the like, are, indeed, rife with cute cats. I’m beginning to believe there is a deep explanation for that. I’m proposing a theory hereby referred to as Cute Cats Redux.
Here’s a little background:
In 2009, I was talking about email apnea and showing the Heartmath EmWave technology at a Foo Camp. Before passing the EmWave around, I demonstrated it. The EmWave shows, using red, blue, and green colored lights, the level of stress one is experiencing.
I explained that, to reduce stress, one could use certain types of breathing to get into a more balanced autonomic state. Only, even as I was using the suggested breathing technique, I was _not_ shifting states. The light was red. Red. RED.
I looked at the audience and said: “There’s actually another way to do this. When we evoke feelings of love and appreciation, it can also bring us into a more balanced autonomic state.” I looked around the room and saw so many people I admired and appreciated: Matt Mullenweg, John Hagel, Kathy Sierra, Bunnie Huang, Dan Gould, Sara Winge, and so many others.
Then, my eyes settled on Matt Mullenweg. Matt had very kindly come up to me at a conference a few months earlier, and mentioned that he enjoyed my writing, and when I was ready to move off my very broken JotSpot Wiki, to WordPress, that he’d be happy to help me. I was so moved by this – both emotionally (and literally! I made the switch and Matt was awesome!).
I started, “Matt, thank you so much for your kindness – for…” Before I could even finish the sentence, the audience gasped. GREEN!!! Eye contact, appreciation, and a few words, had shifted my autonomic state instantly! The audience SAW the power of emotion. Of course, with the emotion, my breathing and attention state also shifted. I was more relaxed. It’s all wired together: attention, emotion, breathing.
A few months after that, I was showing a senior executive how to use the EmWave to become more aware of her stress levels and to learn to better manage this. When breathing techniques didn’t work to help her shift out of a stressed state, I suggested she think about something she loved. Her husband was standing nearby. For a moment (she explained later), she focused on her husband, then sighed, and said, “Honey, I’m going to focus on the cats.” Green! Instant green!
Fast forward to March 2014. I’m being interviewed by Erin Anderssen, a journalist. She mentions that it can be challenging to shift from red to green when she’s using the EmWave. I tell her the story from 2009. Then it hits me!
What if all the cute cats and dogs on the Internet are in some small way, evoking momentary feelings of love and appreciation? What if looking at these images is as beneficial as a “breathing break.” What if cute cats and dogs make us kinder and more empathic as we hunch over our personal technologies for hours on end? What if we are self-soothing and bringing ourselves back into a kind of spiritual homeostasis when we look at and share these images and videos.
It turns out, there’s science to support the Cute Cats Redux theory. There’s a database of images called the International Affective Picture System, compiled by researchers Margaret Bradley and Peter Lang. This calibrated set of photos tracks affective consequences, and positive and negative responses to photos. Negative examples include: a spider, a baby with a tumor, and an automobile crash with injured people. On the positive side, there’s a category referred to as “cute.” Cute includes the old couple on the park bench holding hands and watching the sunset, as well as kittens and puppies. All these produce positive affect.
Looking at those cute cats and puppies is not a waste of time. It’s self-soothing. Just as we have a physical homeostasis that supports healthy regulation of bodily functions, I believe we have a spiritual homeostasis that can draw us, both individually and collectively toward what heals us. Cute Cats Redux.
This post is dedicated to Ben Huh, Cheezburger, and to a very funny guy who sent me a video of him singing a sweet song to his cat.
This post was written several years ago. I’m feeling great these days and ready to post some of the things written in darker moments…
From January 2010
I’m lying in bed and the right side of my body is frozen. I’m right-handed. I want to get up and the thought alone isn’t getting me there. I remember something my doctor said, “When you wake up, pay attention to what is working. Put all your attention on that.”
I scan my body. My left arm is great. Okay, left arm, show me what you can do. I reach to grab one of the headboard spindles, and use my left arm to roll over and hoist myself up. My left leg is working pretty well, too. I lean against the wall and drag myself into the bathroom. Home run. I may be right-handed, but my left arm rules.
A few years ago, my friend, Mary Jane, was telling me about someone she had coached. The woman kept diving into the same story, the same limitations, and the same struggles. Mary Jane would listen and ask questions. At one point, in a face-to-face meeting, Mary Jane took the woman’s arm and told her to try to get away. The woman pulled and pulled with the arm Mary Jane was holding, then, gave up. “I’m stuck,” she said, committed to stuck-ness.
“What part of you is caught?” Mary Jane asked.
“Easy,” the woman responded, “my arm.”
“What part of you is free,” Mary Jane coached.
“Wow. The rest of my body!”
“How can you use the rest of your body to free yourself?”
The woman was quickly free.
As I fell back into bed, I wondered why mind always found limitations quickly and was blind to freedom.
One of my favorite mentors and teachers, Byron Katie, offers:
“Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it… it’s just easier if you do.”
A few years ago, in a conversation with a friend, I caught myself paying more attention to another, nearby conversation. Realizing I was missing the moment to connect with this friend, I created a “game” for myself to counteract the distraction. Now, as much as possible, when I make a choice to be in conversation with someone, I assign myself the task of noticing what I like about that person. This attunes my listening, and softens my attention into a state I call “relaxed presence.” It opens me into a receptive, present moment state.
In doing this, I find myself falling in love all day long.
For me, this “game” is more powerful than listing what I’m grateful for or reminding myself of the power of unconditional love and compassion. Going from the general to the specific, is immediate and powerful.
Tonight, at dinner, I fell in like/love with the person next to me, a serial entrepreneur and social entrepreneur with a strong sense of integrity, warmth and kindness, curiosity and creativity.
The path toward compassion and unconditional love starts here.