Let’s face it. We are a screen society. Most of us are scrolling through our phones from the moment we wake up and many of us are on a computer all day, whether looking for information, entertainment or connection (or actually working).
Much has been written about how our screen dependency is affecting our health. We know it tends to make us more sedentary. know it can cause eye strain. But did you know focusing on our phone and computer screens also affects our breathing?
The term screen apnea began as “email apnea” after a former Microsoft executive did a small, informal study of 200 people and found that 80% periodically held their breath or altered their breathing, while checking email. Its name evokes sleep apnea, a condition where people periodically stop breathing while sleeping. Since then, scientists have been studying the screen apnea phenomenon, which is getting worse as we all struggle to handle more screen stimuli.
We are often dealing with several screens at a time. Someone’s texting you, someone’s calling you, someone’s emailing you. Humans have not yet evolved to be able to handle all this screen stimulation. Scientists say screen apnea is part of our bodies’ stress-response. When we’re faced with any kind of stimuli (even a cute cat video), our nervous system looks for signals to decipher whether or not it’s a threat.
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. The problem is, shallow or sporadic breathing that characterizes screen apnea is not good for our bodies or our moods.
Chances are screen apnea causes you to use your shoulders instead of your diaphragm to move air in and out of your lungs. You might even stop breathing or hold your breath and not even realize it.
Seriously, taking a deep breath is one of the best ways of mitigating the effects of screen apnea. It is one of a few simple practices you can adopt for better breathing habits, even in our increasingly screen-bound lives.
Know the signs of screen apnea. Are you breathing through your mouth (often an indicator of shallow breath)? Are you breathing at all? The awareness can help you snap out of it.
Set up breath reminders. Many smartwatches have breath alert functions, or you can set up your own. Once an hour or so a gentle alert can remind you to focus on your breathing for a few moments. Natural abdominal breathing sends additional oxygen to your brain and activates your parasympathetic system (your rest-and-digest response which offsets your stress response). You might want to pair it with an opportunity to stand up and stretch your legs.
A big sigh is your best bet. If you catch yourself breathing shallowly or not at all, try sighing audibly. Studies suggest that a long deep sigh can be a quick and easy way to reset breathing patterns. In a study published in January 2023, researchers found that while many breathing techniques are valuable, cyclic sighing — in which the exhale lasts longer than the inhale — is particularly effective for increasing oxygen and improving mood.
Chair yoga. Are you sitting on a chair with a back? You can improve your breathing and posture right now! Sitting in your chair, inhale and raise your arms toward the ceiling. Let your shoulder blades slide down your back as you reach upward with your fingertips. Anchor your sit bones in your seat and reach up from there. Place your left hand over on your right knee. Place your right arm on the back of the chair. Twist and stretch lightly for sixty seconds with eyes open or closed. Breathe. After sixty seconds, bring your body back to center. Then reverse the stretch. Do this a few times and you will notice better breathing, a renewed energy and improved mental clarity.
When you take a break, make it a screen break. Don’t step away from your computer and check your social media, or respond to texts. That defeats the purpose. Take a few moments to do things that don’t require too much mental effort so that your nervous system can switch from a state of focus and vigilance to one of relaxation. Stretch, listen to music and sigh. Go outside, for a few minutes, if you can. It’s amazing how rejuvenated and energized you will feel.
After all there is nothing better than breathing deeply and well.