The weirdest thing can happen while we're working intently on the computer or responding to texts on our phones: We accidentally stop breathing. It can be subtle, and it's not always for long, but it's enough to disrupt our regular flow of oxygen and unwittingly kick our stress response into gear.
"Email apnea is a phenomenon where people unconsciously hold their breath or drop into shallow breathing when they're responding to email or texting," says Niraj Naik, a world-leading breathwork expert and founder of the international school of breathwork SOMA Breath.
Linda Stone, a writer, researcher, and former executive at Apple and Microsoft first coined the concept of email apnea around 2008, defining it as "a temporary absence or suspension of breathing, or shallow breathing, while doing email," in an article for the Huffington Post. After observing her own struggles with breathing too shallowly, or not at all, while sitting and typing at her computer screen, Stone wanted answers. She dove into the literature, spoke to doctors, and conducted research of her own. Ultimately, she found she was far from the only person whose breathing became interrupted or changed while buried in work.
"[Stone's] research observed the breathing patterns of hundreds of people while seated at a computer and found that about 80 percent of people would unconsciously hold their breath or drop into shallow breathing when they respond to email or texts," Naik says.
So 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.
Why We Hold Our Breath When We're Stressed or Focused
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)," explains Naik. "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 It Impacts Our Health
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 log in for work. "When this instinct kicks in regularly during daily activities such as reading or replying to emails, the effects can become chronic," Naik says, and chronic breath-holding isn't a good thing.
In her investigation, Stone cited findings from Margaret Chesney, PhD, and David Anderson, PhD, both formerly at the National Institute of Health (NIH), that explain the physiological impacts of cumulative breath-holding or compromised breathing: 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," Naik says.
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," adds Naik.
How to Stop Holding Your Breath
"Thankfully, you can train your brain to focus on tasks without unconsciously [inhibiting] your breathing," Naik says. A growing body of research suggests activities such as breathwork or meditation can enhance cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and executive function."
He explains that 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 will help you improve your 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.
Sit comfortably in an upright position with your back straight.
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.
Gently, without forcing it in anyway, exhale fully through the mouth for eight seconds.
Once you've exhaled, breathe in fully again, without force, and exhale slowly for eight seconds.
Repeat this 20 to 30 times in a smooth, continuous rhythm.
Then inhale fully through the nose.
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.)
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.
Repeat this breathing and visualizing for five 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.