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.