This isn’t the first time I’ve shown up late in a trending conversation. Until something becomes an issue for me directly, I don’t generally go looking for answers.
For the past several years, I have improved my habits toward a more healthy lifestyle – in some ways, rather dramatically. Still, I am one of the millions of Americans who spends a majority of her waking hours sitting in front of one screen or another. And, apparently, I am also one who forgets to breathe while reading the screen.
More than 5 years ago, Linda Stone broke a story about email apnea on Huffington Post. The condition is defined as simply holding one’s breath or otherwise shallow breathing while reading the screen, mostly while reading email. The idea is that we often hold our breath in anticipation of what is coming next in communications. And what, do you suppose, is her suggested remedy for overcoming the cumulative effects of such an under-serving practice of breathing consistently over time? Well, get up and go talk to somebody face to face!
I admit freely to having a preference for email for most communications. It can be very effective for communicating information without losing too much time in yada-yada-yada. But, what we lose by limiting our face-to-face interactions is the essence of the person to whom we are “speaking.” So, even though I like to use email for practical reasons, I do recognize the loss of other sensory connections made while talking to someone and the elimination of signals that come through body language.
My line of full-time work is in administration. We live by email, essentially, 24 hours per day. Weekends used to be “closed” days, but email continues to come in day or night, seven days a week. That’s a lot of impersonal communicating – and a lot of breath-holding if you are reading emails that provoke anxiety.
A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with adult-onset asthma. It was unsettling. Unnerving. Difficult to accept. The worst part, really, was dealing with the sleepless nights and emergency room visits prior to getting a diagnosis and some drug therapy. It seemed in many ways like anxiety because, well, when you can’t get in a full breath, you do become a little anxious. The symptoms escalate reciprocally: airways constrict, you begin to feel anxious, more constriction, more anxiety … you get the idea.
I stayed on medication until things seemed under control. I did a lot of research about adult asthma and discovered that, during those times when I felt I couldn’t get in enough air, I was sucking in my stomach and trying to breathe with my neck and shoulders. It looked desperate, and it was. And it never worked. It was like I had forgotten how to breathe.
As I became more aware of my breathing habits, I made an effort to practice proper breathing techniques. Upon inhaling, I allow my stomach to open out, making room for my lungs to expand. As part of one exercise, I take in a deep breath, hold it a few seconds, then exhale, sucking in my stomach at that point, to help squeeze out the air. Then, I hold that for a few seconds before taking in the next breath.
After exercising this way for a while, I noticed that my “asthma” symptoms disappeared. No night-time panics, gasping for a deep breath, no need to prop myself up to sleep, no daytime breathing difficulties. All better.
I noticed the return of my symptoms, along with a significant increase in stress at work, over the last several weeks. This time, I made a connection between my daytime breathing habits – shallow, improper breathing with repeating periods of “apnea” – and my daytime sources of stress.
We can’t eliminate stress. I know that. We have to figure out ways, instead, to cope with it. I always considered breathing one of those involuntary activities of the body – you know, something I don’t have to remind myself to do. However, I’ve learned that breathing may not be as automatic as I always thought, particularly in a stressful environment.
The holiday season can be very stressful. Do you notice these symptoms as you spend extended time in front of the computer screen? Take notice! And don’t forget to breathe.