September 28th 2021
Screen apnea is a thing - and it's making us more anxious
January 25th 2022 / 0 comment
Do you hold your breath when you scroll? Most of us do without realising when we're on our phones or checking emails. Here's how to know if you're doing it (and how to stop)
Do you ever find yourself unconsciously holding your breath when you’re writing an important email, sending a risky text or posting a picture on Instagram? You're not alone. So many of us find ourselves forgetting to breathe when we’re on our computers or phones that it’s been given a name: tech or screen apnea.
“Tech apnea is when you’re looking at your phone, particularly social media and you forget to breathe,” explains neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart. It's an issue because holding our breath or shallow breathing is a signal of stress for the body and puts our brain into the fight or flight mode. When you breathe this way, the vagus nerve which is attached to your diaphragm sends a message to your brain that there’s a threat and you should feel stressed, she explains.
"Consistent unintentional breath-holding can cause the brain to believe it's on standby to deal with a real threat, causing us to feel unnecessarily anxious and stressed," writes breath coach Aimee Hartley in her book Breathe Well.
The term was coined by writer and consultant Linda Stone in 2007, who called it email apnea. At the time, we were more glued to our computer screens than our phones and so now the phrase 'tech' or 'screen apnea' has evolved to reflect our modern habits.
Stone had chronic respiratory infections and was recommended a course of Buteyko breath work, which is particularly effective for asthma. As she became more conscious of her breathing she noticed that whenever she was looking at emails her breath pattern completely changed. "I was either shallow breathing or holding my breath. I paid attention and noticed that day after day, this was the case."
She spent seven months observing and researching the topic, even testing her friends with a heart rate variability monitor, a wearable that measures stress response. "I also noticed that only about 80 per cent of the people I observed and tested had email apnea. Twenty per cent did not have it. I became very interested in the 20 per cent!" She discovered that this minority had all been taught breathing techniques to manage their energy and emotions, as part of their work as dancers, triathletes, musicians and even a test pilot.
Why do we forget to breathe when we’re on our phones?
“There are a few things about social media that cause us to hold our breath. One is the expectation of likes, comments or followers. With the expectation of engagement you breathe in, reach for your phone and forget to exhale because you’re so consumed by what you’re looking at,” says Dr Swart.
This either leads to a feeling of disappointment if you haven’t got as many likes as you were expecting (we’ve all been there), so you end up shallow breathing or if you’re racking up the likes it leads to a state of excitement which also leads to shallow breathing, explains Dr Swart. Finally, you might end up comparing your recent post to those of others, or previous ones of your own which performed better which feels like a threat to your brain, resulting in, you got it, more shallow breathing.
How to recognise tech apnea
Clenched teeth: "A tight jaw is the first sign your breath is being held," writes Aimee.
Your posture: Are your shoulders hunched? This is a surefire sign you're tense and not breathing. "Chin to chest and a collapsed diaphragm will impede a full healthy breath," says Aimee.
Breath: The most obvious but sometimes hardest to recognise, if your breath is shallow or you're not breathing at all.
How to prevent tech apnea
Aside from deleting the Instagram app and never looking at your phone again, there are a few methods to banish tech apnea, focusing on the breath and breathing more consciously. "Connect with your breath before you connect with your tech," advises Aimee.
“Focus on making your exhale longer than your inhale,” suggests Dr Swart. “This sends a reverse message from your lungs to your brain that actually you’re relaxed and your body should be in the parasympathetic state rather than sympathetic which is fight-flight.”
"Making your out-breath longer than your in-breath helps to switch off your stress state and activate your thrive state," adds author Dr Rangan Chatterjee, who favours the 3,4,5 breath. Breathe in for 3, hold for 4, breathe out for 5. We recommend doing the before you use your phone to bring awareness to the breath.
Breathwork classes are a great way to get used to consciously breathing. James Dowler, AKA Breathe With James on Instagram, has some great guided breathing videos on his channel which get you used to parasympathetic breathing.
Shrug your shoulders
More physical than altering your breathing, this sounds simple but shrugging your shoulders before you settle down to send emails or browse the internet is key to dealing with tech apnea as Aimee explains: "I practise this every time before I start any work on my laptop. Sit comfortably in a chair, rest your hands on your thighs and allow the spine to be tall (it sometimes helps to take the spine a little away from the support of your chair). Be mindful of how you are sitting. Make sure the shoulder blades are drawn down your back, the chest is lifted, but not strained and allow space between the pelvis and the rib cage. A good posture can help you breathe a fuller breath.
To help release tension in the respiratory muscles in the shoulders and upper back take a deep and slow inhalation through the nose and raise the shoulders to the ears. Exhale and let the shoulders go. Repeat five to ten times and then rotate the shoulders slowly in a backward direction."