You’ve sat down at your desk to start your day. You open up your email, your Slack, your WhatsApp, and you start reading and responding. Have you noticed what’s happened to your breathing? You probably have no idea because you’re focused on an overload of incoming messages…
It’s likely, however, that you held your breath or shifted to shallow breathing, mouth breathing and/or fast breathing (hyperventilation). This shift is ‘email apnoea’.
Why does it matter? Well, all of these shifts in your breathing pattern are triggers for the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. Before you’ve even started your first task of the day, you are deep in your body’s stress response.
What is apnoea?
Before we jump into the ins and… and… outs, let’s get our lexicon in order. The word ‘apnoea’ comes from the Greek word apnous which means ‘breathless’. The Oxford Dictionary defines the term ‘apnoea’ as “a condition in which somebody stops breathing for a short time, especially while they are sleeping”.
Most people know about apnoea in relation to sleep. Partners all over the world have panicked as they realise their sleeping buddy doesn’t seem to have breathed in quite a long time. That’s sleep apnoea.
Sleep apnoea is caused by all kinds of things – such as neck size, inefficient breathing mechanics, alcohol consumption and sleeping position. Email apnoea, on the other hand was first coined by Linda Stone in 2008, and is clearly a symptom of our digital age.
The stress response
Our nervous system has two significant modes:
- The sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This is the system that triggers ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses
- The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This is the system concerned with ‘rest, recover and digest’
The SNS prepares your body for movement, for action. It’s based on the primal instinct of evading a predator or life-threatening situation.
The PNS activates when we feel safe and no longer under threat. It takes advantage of that time to digest food, repair muscles and sleep.
I’m sure you’d agree, living in ‘danger imminent’ mode is not conducive to a calm, happy and enjoyable life. In fact, it can lead to physical and mental chronic-stress related illnesses. Email apnoea triggers the SNS.
Opening emails and holding your breath – email apnoea
Now you understand the concept of apnoea and the stress response, let’s explore what email apnoea actually does to your body.
Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your blood vessels constrict. Your digestive system gets subdued, while your pupils dilate as you switch into life-saving mode.
All because you opened your emails and messages. So now you’re stressed (but not exactly sure why) for the rest of the day and you’re getting wound up by little things that you know, deep down, don’t actually matter. Your productivity falls through the floor and before you know where you are, you’re feeling exhausted but don’t seem to have achieved much.
How does email apnoea affect knowledge workers?
As many attendees of FLOWN’s Flocks deep work sessions will attest, being in a ‘flow state’ is when you get your best work done. You’re calm, and singularly focused on the task at hand.
It’s almost impossible to achieve flow when your stress response is active.
Your nervous system has told your brain to be on high alert for sabre-toothed tigers, and you’re haplessly trying to get it to focus on writing a PowerPoint deck? It’s not going to happen.
We’re living in a world of distractions. We’re trained to react immediately to a ping, a red dot, an obtrusive banner and a new notification. We are overloaded and overwhelmed by stimuli and all of this is contributing to the way we feel, the way we breathe and our life satisfaction.
For the science nerds, here’s a deeper look at what is happening in your body when you hold your breath or change the speed and position of your breathing. It disrupts your biochemistry. Your oxygen (O2) levels, your carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and your nitric oxide (NO) are altered.
Oxygen is your primary source of energy. CO2 in your blood enables the O2 to leave your bloodstream and enter your body.
The importance of nitric oxide
Nitric oxide is a major player that’s mostly unknown. Legendary science writer, the late Pearce Wright, wrote in a document for the Royal Society and Association of British Science Writers:
“The immune system uses nitric oxide in fighting viral, bacterial and parasitic infections, and tumors. Nitric oxide transmits messages between our nerve cells and is associated with the processes of learning, memory, sleeping, feeling pain and probably, depression. It is a mediator in inflammation and rheumatism.”
In other words, how you breathe moment by moment is having a drastic effect on your experience of life. This includes how you absorb information and how you deliver on tasks.
How to overcome email apnoea
As a breathwork coach, one of my favourite things to teach my clients is that everything starts with becoming consciously aware. Whether that means realising you’re struggling with anxiety, or noticing that you’re enjoying the moment you’re in, or even that you’re holding your breath, it is vital that you become aware in order to experience it.
So, becoming consciously aware of your breathing whenever you can is key to overcoming this instant stress response issue.
Before you open your laptop next time, take a moment to stop and check in with your breathing. You don’t need to control it, or change it. Just take a momentary pause to feel a few inhales and exhales.
Once you are comfortable with feeling your breath, close your mouth and breathe in through your nose for a count of 3-5 seconds, then exhale for the same amount of time. Let this be soft, gentle and calming. Once you’ve found this gentle rhythm, open your emails but keep your initial focus on your breathing.
Keep this breathing going as you begin to read and respond to emails, taking a moment to stop and pause if you notice you’ve switched back to holding your breath or hyperventilating.
Use this new habit to break your old one. Maybe you can make email apnoea a thing of the past almost as soon as you knew it was a thing at all.