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Are You Subconsciously Holding Your Breath?

Intense concentration at the office can lead to something called “email apnea,” where you actually stop breathing as you work. Here's how to notice and fix the problem so you can breathe easy again.

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Contributing Writer

Stressed, seated, and staring at a screen. Sound familiar? If this is you right now—as well as most people you know—then you’ll want to keep reading. While last year’s standing desk craze may have alerted you to the dangers of sitting all day, every day, we have some more news for you: Being sendentary isn’t the worst of it.

You know that stress is unhealthy, sitting wreaks havoc on your posture, and the bright screen light can disrupt your sleep. None of this is good, but possibly even more serious is the sensation that you sometimes get at your desk when it feels like your head is underwater. Why do you feel like you’re drowning? Because, in a sense, you are.

“Email apnea” is a term credited to former Apple exec Linda Stone. Just like it’s better-known bedtime counterpart, sleep apnea, the term describes prolonged periods where you go without breathing—you hold your breath without realizing it—while at your desk or at work. And just as sleep apnea is under-diagnosed, email apnea may be a lot more prevalent than you think.

In fact, Belisa Vranich, Ph.D., says that in nearly every office setting that she has encountered, three out of every 10 people are breath-holders. Vranich teaches breathing classes in person and online for everyone from corporate office types to tactical military operators. She likens the focused-to-the-point-of-breathlessness that we feel at our computers to being in a “modern predatory state.”

“Think about shooting at a range, or if you were an animal stalking something,” says Vranich, who is also the author of Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health. “You would naturally hold your breath so that you won’t make an errant movement.”

Obviously, bringing that level of intensity to your inter-office “reply all” is overkill. You wouldn’t choose to do it. The problem is that, unless you’ve actually caught yourself holding your breath as you type or read, you probably aren’t aware that it’s happening. Here’s how to tune into your body as you go about your day and notice whether it is happening to you.

Two Types of Breathers: Which One Are You?

Let’s start with how you breathe. Believe it or not, people respire in many different ways when you consider the pace at which they inhale, what muscles they use to pull the air in, and so on. But Vranich says you can simplify things by separating people into two broad categories: vertical breathers and horizontal breathers.

Vertical breathing describes how most people breathe. When you do it, your shoulders move up on inhales and down on exhales. You may even feel as if you’re getting taller when you breathe in and shorter when you breathe out. If you were to put one hand on your belly and another on your chest when you breathe, the hand on your chest would move more.

In horizontal breathing, your shoulders and neck stay completely still as you breathe. Only your midsection drives the inhalation and exhalation. Rather than growing taller and shorter, you feel as if you’re moving outward, then contracting.

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Horizontal breathers, who are in the minority, breathe by properly using their diaphragms. For vertical breathers (a.k.a., the rest of us), muscles in our back, shoulders, neck, and even face work to help “pull” the air into our bodies. This not only causes us to expend more energy than we need to, it also tightens up all of those compensatory muscles, and still provides a lousier dose of air than does lower body breathing. Why is quality compromised? Because so many of our lung’s alveoli (the air sacs that allow for the exchange of oxygen into the bloodstream) lie in the lower portions of the tissues.

Making matters worse, vertical breathers are more likely to also be subconscious breath holders, Vranich warns. But the good news is that you can do the old “two birds with one stone” and fix both problems by learning how to breathe better with your lower body.

Stop Needlessly Drowning at Your Desk

To change your breathing pattern from vertical to horizontal, Vranich says you need to think differently about how you breathe. Rather than concentrate on pulling air into your lungs, imagine your breathing starts at your hips. A drill you can use to help learn better lower body breathing is something Vranich calls “Rock and Roll.”

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In Rock and Roll, you start in a seated position. You can be in a chair or cross-legged on the floor. On your inhale, expand your belly and lean forward. The extra lithe among us may have to actively push their belly out to achieve what we’re going for here. Your goal is to achieve a sensation akin to having your belly land in your lap. Then when you exhale, lean over as if you were slumping down into a comfy cushioned loveseat. Contract your belly fully, exhaling until you are completely empty. Do this 20 times (an inhale and exhale equals one rep).

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“When you move your breath toward the bottom part of your body, you’ll actually feel relieved,” Vranich says. “Not only because you’re taking a breath that helps your parasympathetic system, which controls your “rest and digest” response, but also because you won’t have to recruit your shoulders to do the work of breathing for you. You’ll be breathing more into your anatomical center, and that will actually make you feel more centered.”

Vranich offers two other tips for noticing and correcting your breathing as you go about your workday. First, occasionally breathe through your mouth so you can hear it—yes, you can ujjayi breathe at work. Second, remind yourself to exhale. People rarely hold their breath on an exhale, Vranich says, but often do on an inhale.

Take Your Breathing to New Heights with a Balloon

Advanced breathers who want to take respiration a step further can try balloon breathing to improve exhalation, the very important underdog. Here’s how Vranich teaches it: Place the balloon between your lips. Take a big belly breath in. Then on the exhale, blow into the balloon while you squeeze the air out with your ab and core muscles. The first exhale may be difficult, especially if you’re using a new balloon.

Once you’ve fully exhaled, keep the balloon in your mouth without letting the air escape. Inhale through your nose and repeat, filling the balloon even more. Do this for up to four breaths, or until the balloon seems “about to pop” full. Then pinch the balloon with your fingers, remove it from your lips, and let the air out.



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