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Inhale, Exhale, Excel: Breathe easy and relieve tension at work

In today's fast-paced world, it's not uncommon to find ourselves deeply engrossed in our work, be it replying to a barrage of emails or tackling complex tasks on our computers. However, in the midst of this intense focus, we might unknowingly find ourselves holding our breath. This phenomenon is known as "email apnea," a term coined by Linda Stone, former Apple executive, and, much like its sleep-related counterpart, sleep apnea, it can have subtle but profound effects on our well-being. In this blog post, we'll explore the concept of email apnea, its implications for our health, and most importantly, how to recognize and address this issue to breathe easy at work.

Happy carefree woman stretching hands at workplace, leaning back in comfortable chair, student or freelancer relaxing enjoying break during work done, sitting at desk with laptop
Breathe easy at work


The Modern Predatory State: Breath-Holding in the Digital Age

Staring at screens for prolonged hours, crunched over in poor posture, and dealing with high-stress tasks can inadvertently lead to email apnea. This subliminal breath-holding while working is a natural response that, in primitive terms, would help us remain still and focused while stalking prey or handling demanding tasks. However, bringing such intensity to your daily office routine or Teams Chat is neither productive nor healthy.

The challenge with email apnea is that it often occurs without our awareness. Most individuals do not realize they are holding their breath while typing or reading on their screens. The first step in addressing this issue is to become more in tune with your body and notice when it happens.



Health Implications of Email Apnea

Margaret Chesney, PhD, and David Anderson, PhD, both formerly associated with the National Institute of Health (NIH), have shed light on the physiological repercussions of prolonged breath-holding or compromised breathing. They've demonstrated that chronic breath-holding disrupts the delicate balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide levels within the body.


In essence, email apnea unintentionally triggers a fight-or-flight response, activating our body's stress mechanism and rendering us more prone to feelings of stress and anxiety. If left unaddressed, this imbalance can contribute to stress-related diseases and various serious health issues.


Prolonged hours spent working in front of screens, tackling high-stress tasks, and maintaining poor posture all heighten the risk of email apnea. Slouching or being hunched over while using screens compresses the chest, resulting in shallower breathing.


Free Your Breath

The good news is that you can retrain your brain to focus on tasks without unconsciously suppressing your breath. An expanding body of research suggests that engaging in activities such as breathwork or meditation can enhance cognitive functions, including attention, memory, and executive function.


Two Types of Breathers: Vertical vs. Horizontal

Understanding how you breathe is key to addressing email apnea. People generally fall into two categories of breathers: vertical breathers and horizontal breathers.

Vertical Breathing: This is the most common form of breathing, where the shoulders rise during inhalation and fall during exhalation. It feels as though you're growing taller with each inhale, but it also engages secondary breathing muscles, leading to inefficient breathing and increased tension in your back, shoulders, neck, and face. This type of breather is more likely to experience email apnea.

Horizontal Breathing: A less common but healthier approach, horizontal breathing relies on the diaphragm, with minimal involvement of the shoulders and neck. It promotes efficient breathing and better oxygen exchange in the lower part of the lungs.


The good news is that you can transition from vertical to horizontal breathing and mitigate email apnea.


Breathing Exercises to the Rescue

To improve your breathing pattern and address email apnea, consider practicing some breathing exercises:

  • Expand & Contract: Start in a seated position, hands on your lap. Expand your belly during inhalation, and lean forward. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to open up your chest. Exhale slowly, contracting your belly. Repeat this cycle 6-9 times. This exercise helps you shift your breath toward the lower part of your body, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and reducing tension in your shoulders.

  • Balloon Breathing: For a fun exercise that can be enjoyed by both adults and children, place a balloon between your lips. Inhale deeply through your nose, and as you exhale, blow into the balloon while using your abdominal and core muscles to squeeze the air out. Repeat this for several breaths, gradually filling the balloon even more. This exercise enhances exhalation, a vital but often overlooked aspect of breathing.

  • Mindful breath when feeling breathless at work: If you find yourself holding your breath in the midst of a stressful moment, practice this breathing and visualization for 5-10 minutes daily to reduce stress and improve your overall well-being.

  1. Sit upright with your back straight.

  2. Inhale fully through your nose into your belly for four seconds.

  3. Exhale fully through your mouth for four seconds.

  4. Inhale again, without force, and exhale slowly for four seconds.

  5. Repeat this cycle 8 – 12 times in a continuous rhythm.

  6. Inhale through your nose for four seconds and exhale for seconds by pursing your lips gently.

  7. Visualize a wave of relaxation moving down your body during the exhale.

  8. Repeat this cycle 8 – 12 times in a continuous rhythm

  9. Inhale through your nose for four seconds and exhale through your nose for four seconds, keeping the breath light and gentle.

  10. Repeat this cycle 8 – 12 times in a continuous rhythm

  • Nasal Breathing: Once you have become comfortable inhaling and exhaling for equal measures of time, you can train yourself to breathe through your nose with a slow, extended exhale. Try to exhale a few seconds longer that your inhale. This practice can lower your breath rate, reduce anxiety, and calm your mind.

Lastly, remember to take regular breaks during your workday to check in with your breath and your body. Implementing these practices will not only help you address email apnea but also enhance your overall health and productivity.


Breath, the Guardian of your Well-Being

In the words of the yogis, the breath is the guard of the City of Life. Mastering your breath and addressing email apnea can help lead to a calm and balanced mind, a healthy body, and a newfound sense of well-being. So, next time you're engrossed in your work, remember: breathe easy and let your breath be your ally.


Navigating Beyond the Surface

In closing, it's essential to remember that while we've discussed the significance of mindful breathing in the context of work, breath-holding can sometimes be indicative of deeper emotional challenges or past experiences. If, upon reflection, you sense that you've been holding your breath since childhood or suspect that there might be more than work-related stress contributing to this habit, don't hesitate to seek guidance from a qualified therapist experienced in breathing and regulation techniques. Connecting with such a therapist can provide the support and insight needed to explore and address any underlying distress or trauma, helping you embark on a journey towards improved well-being and a more fulfilling life. Your breath is not only a tool for workplace wellness but also a powerful instrument for self-discovery and healing.


Explore the Power of Breath and Wellness

As a therapist specialized in approaches to facilitate healthy and functional breathing, while also aiding in the regulation of the nervous system, my aim is to help you bridge between your inner world and its impact on your outer world – and vice versa. Breath is vital life force and a tool for wellness, healing, and self-discovery.


If you enjoyed this article and think others could benefit from these insights on mindful breathing, please don't hesitate to share it. Additionally, consider signing up for my newsletter to stay updated on our upcoming posts, where we'll delve into topics like how our breath is intricately connected to our emotional states, the topic of trauma and where it's stored, the profound impact of breathing on trauma recovery, and the telltale signs of a successful journey toward the relaxation response, trauma integration and recovery.


Let's get in touch - and until then, take care.


Heidi Kempeneer,

Therapist and Founder of SETUKA , a platform for body-based therapies and well-being services for individuals and organisations.

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