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Email Apnea

Breathing meditations for the workplace.

This past weekend, I attended the biannual Mind and Life International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, which featured the Dalai Lama, cutting-edge neurobiological research on mindfulness, and lectures by meditation teachers.

One talk that has stayed with me (and that was organized by psychiatry residents at our new Center for Mindfulness and Compassion, Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School), was given by New York Times best-selling author Sharon Salzberg, whose newest book is Real Happiness at Work. Salzberg talked about email apnea (or screen apnea), a finding by Linda Stone, a writer, researcher, and former executive at Apple and Microsoft. Stone noticed that a majority of people (possibly 80 percent) unconsciously hold their breath, or breathe shallowly, when responding to email or texting.

Is this a problem, you might ask? Research by Dr. Margaret Chesney and Dr. David Anderson at National Institute of Health (NIH) demonstrated that holding one’s breath contributes to stress-related diseases and disturbs the body’s balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide, which help keep the immune system strong, fight infection, and mediate inflammation. It can affect our well-being and our ability to work effectively. Shallow breathing can also trigger a sympathetic nervous system “fight or flight” response. If we stay in this state of emergency breathing and hyperarousal for extended periods of time, it can not only impact sleep, memory, and learning, but also exacerbate anxiety and depression.

The next time you’re responding to email or texting, pause for a moment and notice what’s happening in your body. How are you sitting? Are you slumped over your phone or laptop? Is your breathing shallow? Are you tense? Are you hyperventilating? If so, what can you do to counteract email/screen apnea?

This brief, simple practice can be done at your desk.

Just Three Breaths

  • Start by sitting comfortably, finding a posture that is relaxed and upright, one that embodies dignity. You can close your eyes or keep them partially open, focusing on a spot on the floor a few feet in front of you. (Don’t focus on your screen.)
  • Feel your natural breath. There’s no need to hold, alter, control, or micromanage it.
  • Notice the sensations as you inhale and then gently notice the sensations as you exhale.
  • Feel the next full inhalation as well as the next full exhalation. If the mind wanders, don’t worry. Just bring your attention back, without judgment or criticism.
  • Bring your attention to the third and final breath, feeling the sensations of the natural inhalation and feeling the sensations of the natural exhalation.
  • Give yourself a moment to stand, stretch, and even walk for a moment or two before returning to work.

If you are under deadline pressure and stopping to take three breaths doesn’t seem possible (although you might want to question the assumption that you don’t have time to take three breaths), there are some variations you can try while working. One of my favorites is taught by Salzberg, who suggests that you simply note “rising,” with every inhalation, and “falling,” with every exhalation. Another useful practice is taught by the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who has you bring conscious awareness to the act of breathing. He suggests that you note, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.”

Some research suggests that an intentionally longer exhalation can be beneficial in reducing stress. My favorite example of this is from Dr. Andrew Weil, who teaches the 4-7-8 breath. In this practice, breathe in for the count of four, pause and hold the breath for the count of 7, and then exhale audibly for the count of 8. Do this practice for four breaths.

If email contributes to apnea, and if sitting is the “new smoking,” then the modern workplace is becoming a hazardous environment. So be kind to yourself by getting up, stretching, taking a break, and inhaling some fresh air. Not only will you feel better, but you might think more clearly as well.

Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

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