Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Email Apnea, a Digital Diagnosis

Do you hold your breath when checking e-mail on your computer, clicking to see a notification on Facebook, texting on your iPhone, or watching a YouTube video? Have you ever tested it out? Stop right now, and notice your breathing, your posture, and your heart rate. If you hold your breath or have shallow breathing you are one of the 80% of people who have E-mail Apnea (alternatively called Screen Apnea).

Linda Stone, one of the technology industry’s great visionaries, coined the phrase in her 2008 article  when she began to notice her own breath holding. She went on to see if others did the same thing through extensive research, with some fascinating results. When one holds their breath, several things happen. It increases stress levels because there is no exhale, and the exhale is what lessens the stress response and generates the relaxation response. This also impacts our view of the world, sense of well-being and effectiveness.

In another article, “Why Email Can be Habit Forming,” Stone researched the impact of stress and found that when one is stressed they revert to familiar or unconscious behaviors and routines. That is why it can be very difficult to break a habit because “the part of our brain associated with decision-making and goal-directed behaviors shrinks and the brain regions associated with habit formation grow when we're under chronic stress.”

For example she states, “Stressed rats will compulsively press a bar for food pellets, even when they have no intention of eating.” This compulsive behavior could also include checking email every ten minutes, going on Facebook when working on a research paper, and texting and driving,” all behaviors that are contributed to the distraction addiction so many teens suffer from, and they are not the only ones. How many of you find yourself setting goals to use technology less, focus on singular tasks, and stop playing Candy Crush, only to find yourself impulsively doing these things. Luke Venebles in a response to Linda Stone’s article Conscious Computing wrote, “the constant allure of checking to see if someone has replied to my email is a bit more powerful than me at the moment.”

Why do we hold our breath or breathe shallowly when we are in front of a screen? One reason is that when sitting at a computer or using a digital device we are usually in a position with our arms extended and shoulders forward compressing the diaphragm so that it is difficult to get a full inhale and exhale, thus shallow breathing. The other reason is that there is often anticipation involved, which begins with an inhale but the exhale rarely follows which alerts the Sympathetic Nervous System, or the Fight, Flight or Freeze Response. The nervous system goes on high alert, ready for danger, thus creating stress in the body, among other things.

A recent study at Baylor University found that female college students spend 10 hours a day on the cell phone, boys slightly less at 8 hours a day. If students are holding their breath or experiencing shallow breathing for much of this time, it means that they are in high alert stress response much of the day. In another post I will share the research on teens, technology and anxiety, but the simple act of breathing could be one of the remedies for the effect technology is having not only on teens, but the entire population, including you.

The essential remedy is to teach college students to become more mindful of their computing behaviors and remember to breathe. When one takes deep breaths through the nose they fill the lungs and make more space in the body, and the longer they take to exhale through the nose, the more time the body has to go into relaxation response. Simply becoming aware of one’s posture and breath, while sitting at a computer or on an iPhone can cause one to sit up straight and start breathing, thus beginning to reverse some of the effects of Email Apnea.

There are technologies that help us become aware of our breathing, of our attention, or our stress levels. Huffington Post's GPS for the Soul is an app that measures heart rate and heart rate variability. In combination these inform the user of their stress level. The app includes guides to help one self correct, or move from flight, fright or freeze to well-being, along with a breathing pacer. One of the most helpful aspects for me is the intermittent reminders to check in with oneself and breathe. 

Mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga and walking in nature alone are other ways to allow the parasympathetic nervous system to dominate, allowing for more tranquility and calm. Another benefit of these practices is they are done off the grid which gives the mind, body and soul a break from the digital world.

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