If you find yourself feeling tired or stressed a lot and you happen to be one of the millions of Americans who spend a lot of time with screens — scrolling, checking emails, working online — breathe.

You may have “screen apnea.”

That’s a phrase that was coined by writer and speaker Linda Stone years ago when she noticed that she tended to hold her breath or breathe shallowly when she was working on her computer or scrolling on her phone. She wondered if she was unique, so she did a “kitchen-table experiment,” eventually monitoring the breathing and heart rate of more than 200 people as they checked email or scrolled or simply played on a screen device.

As she recounts at Lindastone.net, 80% of the folks in her experiment held their breath or breathed very shallowly. The exceptions were dancers, musicians, high performance athletes and a test pilot. “When I questioned these people, I learned that they had been taught breathing techniques to manage their energy and emotions.”

Stress and other woes

There are potential problems with poor breathing while online — especially given how much time some people spend on their devices and computers. She cited two former National Institutes of Health researchers who showed that “cumulative breath-holding contributes to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to reabsorb sodium and as the balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitric oxide becomes compromised, our biochemistry is thrown off.”

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Possible impacts include harm to immune function, learning, memory, thinking, sleeping, weight, pain management and inflammation.

NPR explored screen apnea recently, noting that shallow breathing sends stress signals to the brain. Per the article, “Breathing properly has an immense positive impact on our health and well-being. Slow breathing lowers our stress levels, increases focus, regulates our emotions and even helps us make better decisions.”

Science journalist James Nestor, author of “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” told NPR that people can train themselves to breathe better when they’re looking at a screen.

The New York Times interviewed Stephen Porges, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an expert on the autonomic nervous system. He said screen apnea is a “manifestation of our body’s stress response,” per the article. The nervous system is trying to decipher whether something’s a threat.

According to the article, “That focus and attention requires mental effort, which kicks off a chain of physiological changes including shallower breathing and a slowing of heart rate to ‘quiet’ your body and divert resources to help you focus, he said. He gave the example of cats stalking their prey; often right before they attack, they will freeze and their breathing will become shallow. That, he said, is essentially what is happening when you get an email, text or Slack message: You freeze, read and come up with a plan of action.”

Per Forbes, hold your breath long enough or often enough and you will be both tired and less effective at work and elsewhere. Breath-holding “throws the nervous system into fight-or-flight-mode, contributing to stress-related illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.”

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The article also notes that “just moving around can cut your risk of sudden cardiac arrest by 92%, so don’t park it for too long. When you get moving, physical tension and mental stress melt away and the solution to a mulled-over problem becomes crystal clear.”

Tips to adjust your breathing

These experts say it can become a big deal if the stress response is on for long periods of time, becoming chronic. So it’s a good idea to learn to breathe properly while on screens.

Stone, Nestor, NPR and The New York Times offered suggestions to combat screen apnea, including:

  • Paying attention and adjusting your breathing.
  • Taking a break.
  • Playing a musical instrument to improve posture and breathing.
  • Dancing.
  • Singing.
  • Using a breathing app in the background while you work.
  • Doing short breathing exercises several times a day to reset how you breathe.
  • Using larger screens, which may be “less mentally taxing.”

Adds Forbes, chair yoga and using the 20-20-20 Rule — every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break, move around and look at something 20 feet away — can help screen apnea, as well.

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