In an age where screens rule, a deep breath may be harder to come by; read along to find out more about the screen apnoea phenomena
CNA – In 2007, Linda Stone, a former executive at Microsoft, had a realisation. Despite her regular morning breathing exercises, she observed that as soon as she sat down at her laptop and opened her email inbox, her focused breathing seemed to dissipate. This shift was evident in her barely detectable and shallow inhales and exhales.
Motivated by this observation, Stone embarked on an informal study she dubbed “dining room table science,” inviting around 200 individuals, including friends, neighbours, and family members, into her home.
During this gathering, she monitored their heart rates and breathing patterns as they checked their email. Interestingly, approximately 80 per cent of the participants displayed instances of either holding their breath or modifying their breathing while engaging with their emails.
Termed as “email apnoea,” Stone coined this phenomenon and shared her discoveries in a widely read article published in The Huffington Post in 2008. Subsequently, she expanded the concept’s scope, renaming it “screen apnoea.”
This term encompasses the interruption of breathing that many of us encounter while performing various tasks in front of screens.
Given the pervasive increase in screen usage, the situation is likely to have exacerbated over time, as noted by James Nestor. In his 2020 book titled “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” Nestor delved into this phenomenon and its implications.
“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 apnoea 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 stimuli, our nervous system looks for signals to decipher whether or not it’s a threat, Dr Porges said.
That 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.
While 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”, Dr 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 apnoea, 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 apnoea 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, Dr Spiegel said. Studies suggest that 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, cyclic sighing – in which the exhale lasts longer than the inhale – is particularly effective for improving mood.
TRY LARGER SCREENS
Dr 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,” Dr 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, Dr Porges said. He suggested carving out a few moments to do things that don’t require too much mental effort – like 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 – like walking in nature – is another way of restoring balance, Dr Spiegel said. It’s a simple thing, he said, “that can help our bodies work better.”