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What happens to our breath when we type, tap, scroll

In 2007, former Microsoft executive Linda Stone noticed something strange happening every time she’d sit down to answer emails. She was holding her breath.

“I would inhale in anticipation, but I wouldn’t exhale because so many emails would be streaming in,” Stone told Manoush Zomorodi in an interview for NPR’s Body Electric. “And this would go on for hours.”

Stone wondered how common this was and set out to investigate using “kitchen table science,” as she called it. She recruited dozens of friends and colleagues to sit at her computer answering emails while she monitored their pulse and heart rate variability. Of those participants, 80% had what Stone coined “email or screen apnea” — shallow or suspended breathing while working on a screen.

The 20% of participants who did not show signs of screen apnea included a former military test pilot, a triathlete, dancers, singers and a cellist — people who had trained to breathe and perform a task or skill simultaneously.

“Observing the cellist was one of the most powerful things, because I could see that his whole body stayed enlivened, energetic,” Stone explained. “He was fully present when he was sitting in front of a screen.”

Breathing habits — and why they matter

“Poor breathing is what you see when you look at 90% of the population,” science journalist James Nestor told Zomorodi. “It includes breathing through the mouth, breathing up into the chest, unconsciously holding your breath, snoring, sleep apnea, asthma, on and on and on.”

Nestor is the author of the bestselling book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, which chronicles his investigation into the power of breath. He explained that over the course of hundreds of years, humans have lost touch with natural breathing patterns as our posture has declined and we spend much of the day hunched over our screens and devices.

“If you are hunched over, you can’t extend your belly. You can’t take that soft, slow, deep breath,” Nestor said.

This results in shallow chest breathing, which means we end up breathing more, which sends stress signals to the brain.

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. Luckily, Nestor feels confident that it’s possible to retrain your body to breathe well. “I think you can absolutely be a healthy breather looking at a screen, without a doubt,” he said.

Guide: Retraining our breath while typing, tapping, scrolling

1. Become aware of your breath.

Our breathing habits are often subconscious. A few times a day, check in with your body and breath and notice the patterns. Are you holding your breath when scrolling through social media? Breathing shallowly? Any time you catch yourself doing this, take a few deep breaths in and out of your nose as a reset.

2. Observe how dogs and infants breathe!

To reconnect with your natural breath, Nestor recommends observing the breathing of a healthy dog or infant. “They breathe very deep. Their stomachs expand very gently when they breathe. They breathe very slowly, and they breathe in and out of their noses,” he said.

3. Take up an instrument.

Stone, the former Microsoft executive, found that learning an instrument helped her maintain good posture and breathing. This in turn allowed her to form better breathing habits — even while in front of a screen. She also took ballroom dancing lessons, which she said had a similar effect.

4. Take breaks.

Taking frequent breaks can help you step away from your screen and take some deep breaths to calm and soothe your nervous system. Incidentally, this recommendation has also been found to positively impact your short- and long-term health (as explored throughout NPR’s Body Electric series).

5. Use a breathing app in the background while you work.

To form good breathing habits while working on a screen, Nestor recommends using a breathing app in the background for extended work periods. The Breathing App and Breathing Zone are two options to try. (This is not an endorsement — many apps are out there).

These apps will play a smooth tone or sound that prompts you to inhale and exhale at a set interval, so you can follow the sound with your breath while you work. With enough practice, your body will learn to naturally hold this breathing rhythm when your attention is otherwise focused on your screen.

6. Practice short breathing exercises a few times a day to reset your breath.

Nestor suggests the simple exercise of breathing in through your nose for five to six seconds and out through your nose for five to six seconds.

“As you inhale, you want to feel that slight expansion of that abdominal region, and then as you continue inhaling, try to lift that breath up to your chest area,” Nestor explained. “So you start low, and you work it up a little higher.” This is known as a three-part breath.

He says it will take some concentration at first, but it will get easier each day that you practice it.

“Once you establish it, you don’t have to think about it. And once you don’t have to think about it, you start to notice that you’re feeling so much better,” Nestor said. “Breathe this way for two minutes a day, and I think even that’s going to make a difference.”

This episode of Body Electric was produced by Katie Monteleone and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. Original music by David Herman. Our audio engineer was Robert Rodriguez.

Listen to the whole series here. Sign up for the Body Electric Challenge and our newsletter here.

Talk to us on Instagram @manoushz, or record a voice memo and email it to us at BodyElectric@npr.org.

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