Quick question: Are you holding your breath right now? If you’re anything like the rest of us you probably answered. “Yes.”
Holding your breath — or breathing at a shallower rate — when you’re using any kind of screen is a Real Thing. It even has a name: Screen apnea. Others have dubbed it “email apnea,” or, more recently, “Zoom apnea,” after the online meeting app.
Screen apnea was first brought to attention by Linda Stone, a writer/researcher and former Apple and Microsoft executive, who noticed that the vast majority of us hold our breath or breathe shallowly while using screens.
And it’s getting a lot more attention now that COVID-19 has radically changed the workday for millions of Americans who now spend countless hours transfixed by phone and computer screens. Dreaded meetings that at least offered a chance to connect now mean: more screen time.
So, if Zoom leaves you feeling depleted, know you’re not alone. Feeling trapped at your desk under the gaze of multiple moving headshots is anxiety-provoking.
The performative aspect alone — maintaining a pleasant facial expression while others speak, planning a thoughtful response, and being the center of unwavering attention while you talk — can cause a sense of stage fright. Big hint: Turning off the camera can help.
Is this really a problem?
The short answer is: Yes, according to Dr. Russell Greenfield of Novant Health Integrative Medicine.
Over time, screen apnea can:
- Disrupt your sleep.
- Lower your energy levels.
- Interfere with your ability to focus and think quickly.
- Lead to or exacerbate depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.
- Increase stress, which can lead to stress-related illnesses.
“Screen apnea alters your body’s delicate balance of gasses” like oxygen, nitric oxide, and carbon dioxide, Greenfield said. “This can cause inflammation and interfere with your immune system’s ability to fight infection.”
Not exactly good news during the coronavirus pandemic, when we all want our immune systems functioning like well-oiled machines.
What to do about it
It’s pretty safe to assume we all have screen apnea to some degree, Greenfield said, as we focus on devices and spend less time on “the aspects of our lives that enhance a sense of peace and comfort.”
By changing our habits around three key contributing factors of screen apnea — posture, stress and the breath itself — Greenfield said we can protect our health and simply feel better day-to-day.
Most of us think of ergonomics in relation to back pain or repetitive-stress injuries. But ergonomics also affects our breathing.
For example, when we work on computers, e lean forward, extend our necks and round our shoulders, while compressing the rib cage. Strategies:
- Upgrade your chair: If you spend lots of time in front of a computer, invest in a chair that supports your lower back to help you maintain good posture.
- Take more breaks: Try to get up and move around every 90 minutes or so.
- Stretch it out: Take mini-breaks to roll your shoulders back and down, and check your neck posture. Doing chair-yoga or stretches can help relieve tightness in your chest area.
Relying more on email and texts robs us of vital information we’d normally get at the workplace: facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. That makes it easier for misunderstandings, frustration and anger to flare, which leads to more stress and poor breathing — a vicious cycle. Greenfield’s advice:
- Set aside a few moments several times a day to pause and take some deep slow breaths. This will oxygenate your body and enhance your energy. You can literally feel better in 15 seconds by doing this.
- If you’re using Zoom, turn off the camera and show up in voice only (when possible). This eases tension by removing you from the spotlight and allowing you to focus, instead of feeling “focused on.” Going off video also enables you to move around and relax the muscles that help you breathe.
- Head outdoors for some fresh air and a little sun to boost your mood and lower anxiety. Sometimes we feel like we can’t leave the keyboard as the work pours in. The reality: a short reboot can make us more productive.
- Be kind to yourself: “Over the years, my patients have taught me that the centerpiece of healing and staying well is kindness, especially toward ourselves,” Greenfield said. “That’s not the same as being selfish. We are talking about sustaining and caring for ourselves.”
Breathing is one of the few critical body functions we can control. That’s good news — it means we can retrain ourselves to breathe in a healthier manner, Greenfield said.
“We tend to think of our bodies as isolated parts and systems — lungs, heart, brain — but everything is interrelated,” Greenfield said. “The truth is: Our breath is intimately connected to multiple aspects of our well-being.”
The foundation of almost every meditation practice, including mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), breathing slowly and deeply enables us to be fully present, and to offer our complete attention to whatever we’re engaged in.” To breathe better:
- Try yoga: Breath work is an integral part of yoga therapy, Greenfield said. “Timing our breath with certain movements and learning to breathe more slowly is overall quite good for us, and also very pleasant.” You don’t need to be a yoga master to benefit.
- Simple breathing exercises exercises can improve your breathing, reduce stress and help you feel less sluggish. Deep, slow breathing also helps move your body out of ‘fight or flight’ mode.
- Sing it out: Singing can help train you to breathe more deeply and slowly, while increasing your lung capacity. It also helps strengthen the muscles that support good posture, and can even boost your mood.
Bottom line: Paying just a little more attention to your body, your screen habits and your breathing can improve your life, safeguard your health and keep your resilience strong.