1, 2, 3 Breathe

The weirdest thing can happen while we're working intently on the computer or responding to whatsapps on our phones: We accidentally stop breathing. It can be subtle, and it's not always for long, but it's enough to interrupt our regular flow of oxygen and unwittingly kick our stress response into action.

'Email apnea' is a phenomenon where people unconsciously hold their breath or drop into shallow breathing when they're responding to email or texting

80 percent of people unconsciously hold their breath or drop into shallow breathing when they respond to email or texting.

If you've ever looked up from your screen after responding to a huge batch of emails only to realize you're oddly short of breath, you're not the only one, and there's a name for it.

There's also a scientific reason for it. Neuroscience research has shown that when we're extremely focused on something (like getting through a full inbox), the brain instinctively "switches off" certain subconscious activities—like breathing or being able to notice hunger or the temperature—in order to direct brain-power toward the task at hand.

"The phenomenon is actually not unique to emails (or any other screen activity, for that matter). Holding the breath on the exhale is instinctive to help people focus or concentrate harder on what they're doing. Temporarily inhibiting a subconscious brain activity such as breathing allows the brain to divert its resources to carrying out a difficult task.

How Email Apnea Can Impact Health

Should you be worried? Well, yes and no. There's nothing immediately harmful about email apnea if it happens every once in a while—and it is a common phenomenon. But you might want to take note if you're noticing it every time you login for work. When this instinct kicks in regularly during daily activities such as reading or replying to emails, the effects can become chronic, and chronic breath-holding isn't a good thing.

. Without getting too into the nitty-gritty science, overtime, chronic breath-holding leads to an imbalance in the body's oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide levels. Essentially, email apnea can unintentionally put us in a fight-or-flight state, flipping on our body's stress response switch, and making it easier for us to feel stressed and anxious. Left unchecked, this imbalance [can] contribute to stress-related diseases and serious illnesses or ailments.

Working long hours staring at a screen, cranking through high-stress tasks, and doing so with poor posture can all increase the likelihood of email apnea. Being hunched over or slumped when looking at screens will compress the chest, leading to shallower breathing.

To Stop Holding Your Breath at Work, Literally Practice Breathing

Thankfully, you can train your brain to focus on tasks without unconsciously [inhibiting] your breathing. A growing body of research suggests activities such as breathwork or meditation can enhance cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and executive function.

Practicing nasal breathing that includes a slow, extended exhale (in other words your exhale is longer than your inhale), is an easy method passed down to us by the ancient yogis for lowering the breath rate, reducing anxiety, and calming the mind. Learning (and really practicing) basic breathing techniques can also help reverse the effects of email apnea; it'll help you improve awareness of your own breath and breathing habits and teach you how to breathe more easily during times of stress.

Next time you find yourself holding your breath while responding to emails, writing an article, or analyzing spreadsheet data, try this breathing exercise from Naik to unwind your mind and reverse the stress response that can lead to email apnea.

  1. Sit comfortably  in an upright position with your back straight.
  2. Inhale fully through the nose into your diaphragm for four seconds, filling your lungs with air. Place your hand on your belly to ensure it rises before your chest.
  3. Gently, without forcing it in anyway, exhale fully through the mouth for eight seconds.
  4. Once you've exhaled, breathe in fully again, without force, and exhale slowly for eight seconds.
  5. Repeat this 20 to 30 times in a smooth, continuous rhythm.
  6. Then inhale fully through the nose.
  7. Exhale by pursing your lips gently to allow air to slowly escape as if you were breathing out through a thin straw. (Check in with your body to ensure you're not tensing any of your muscles during the exhale.)
  8. During the exhale, visualize a wave of relaxation cascading down the front of your body, from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes.
  9. Repeat this breathing and visualizing for 5 to 10 minutes every day. The longer you continue, the more your blood pressure and heart rate will drop and the deeper you'll go into a state of relaxation.

Another crucial tip? Take breaks regularly—and don't skip them! Block out short breaks on your calendar, start a timer, or set your Slack status to "away" if you have to. Coming out of an email (or other work-related) rabbit hole is the only way to rest a hyper-focused brain, recalibrate mentally, and check in with your breath (and the rest of your body). We're all busy, but we have to breathe.