Screen Apnea and Better Breathing at Work

Published by Annie Barrett: 
June 17, 2024

Have you ever noticed that you are working at your computer, maybe checking email, or working on a report, and you suddenly realize you are holding your breath? This is a breathing phenomenon called screen apnea and it has been recently covered on various media platforms. 

What is screen apnea?

Screen apnea is the tendency to not breathe, or more accurately, to breathe very shallowly, when we’re at work on our computers. Screen apnea was coined by Linda Stone, a former Microsoft. Stone began investigating this phenomenon back in 2007 when she realized that even though she did breathing exercises every morning, when she sat down at her laptop and opened up her inbox, she would hold her breath, having shallow or suspended breathing while she was working through her emails.

Why should I care? I haven’t died yet, so I must be breathing! 

True. If you're reading this you’re alive and breathing. However, according to a breath coach, 80 percent of the population has breathing dysfunction as many of us have developed poor breathing techniques over the years.

What is poor breathing?

We all know that breathing provides our bodies with essential oxygen, but we may not always realize how breathing is also intimately connected to our emotions, stress level, nervous system and overall wellbeing. 

Screen apnea is a sign of stress

When we are faced with a potential threat, our bodies freeze and breathing is suspended until we figure out if the threat is real and what we can do about it. When we open our inbox and see a slew of new emails, our bodies interpret this as a threat, and our breathing is affected. While our inboxes are not a source of immediate harm, per se; over time, having a full inbox and long to-list takes a toll on our nervous system. The physical result of feeling stressed shows up as shallow or suspended breathing.

Shallow and suspended breathing can lead to the following:

  • Reduction in oxygen intake
  • Increase of stress in the body
  • Muscle tension especially in the upper body
  • Disrupted sleep

How to develop better breathing techniques

Breathing, of course, is something our bodies do automatically. Yet, it is also something we can be aware of and improve.

Breathing better can help

  • Regulate anxiety
  • Manage depression
  • Regulate stress
  • Improve focus
  • Enhance sleep

How to breathe better during your workday and particularly when you’re at your computer:

1. Become aware of your breath. Throughout the day, pause and check in with your breathing. Notice if you have a tendency to hold your breath during certain activities. When you find yourself doing this, take a few deep breaths to reset your breathing.

2. Check your posture. Slouching compressed the lungs. Invest in an ergonomic chair or standing desk to improve your posture at work.

3. Focus on the exhale. Say to yourself every so often, “long, slow exhale,” and let yourself exhale fully. When you do this, your parasympathetic nervous system can be stimulated to help you switch out of the stress response.

3. Practice belly breathing. Place your hand on your belly. Take a deep breath into your belly, letting the air expand. Fill your chest cavity with breath as well. Feel movement first in the belly and then in the chest. Hold the breath for 4 seconds. Exhale slowly. First exhaling breath out of the chest. Then slowly exhale breath out of the belly. Wait 4 seconds and then take another breath. Repeat as many times as you like.

4. Use a mindfulness or breath app. There are many excellent apps out there for smartphones, smart watches and computer screens. My favorite free app for mindful breathing is Insight Timer. Taking a short break with a guided mindfulness practice is an excellent way to train your body and mind to breathe better. 

Check out my guided breathing practices on Insight Timer:

Simple Mindful Breathing Meditation

Belly Breathing Practice

Soothing Breath Practice