March 24, 2017
Hey, Big Sender; exploring the immediate effects of e-stress + how you can stay cool, calm, & connected.
There was a time when I longed to be a better multi-tasker; envying the seemingly worry-free stranger, emailing a client invoice from his not-even-on-the-market-yet-generation tablet, while noshing on a Clift Bar, driving his manual M5 to his corner office, all while Bluetooth-tethered to his secretary via smartphone, who proceeds to schedule his days in 15-minute increments – practically until his deathbed… But, upon closer examination, I learned Mr. Ten-Things-At-Once secretly stress-smokes like a chimney, couldn’t maintain a meaningful friendship if his life depended on it, has dilapidated health (on the best of days), and has missed his son’s first five birthday parties due to “work obligations.”
There’s no doubt all this multitasking makes us seem more productive, but what is it really doing to our health?
Aside from the obvious radiation-overload and cheating yourself out of truly being present for your life, there are a myriad of cons when weighing the benefits of being a workaholic. Probably the most alarming of these is “Email Apnea” (aka Screen Apnea) caused by consistent, shallow breathing while being mentally tethered to a screen of some sort.
Yes, it’s real. Don’t believe me? See for yourself; next time you open your inbox on a Monday morning, pay attention to your body. The screen will inevitably flood with emails while Outlook establishes a connection to the server, as this happens, you’ll also probably notice a variance in your breathing as you establish a connection to stress. Your posture will most likely be somewhat (if not incredibly) tense as well, particularly stiff in the neck or shoulder region. Somewhere in between all the incessant work texts, replying to seemingly endless email threads, and dodging a bevy of alarms on the electronics which we’ve programmed to govern our day, you start focusing more on all of this and less on inhaling the oxygen you need. Notice how your breath becomes shallow, shorter, scarcer as you focus more and more on these electronics that are so diligently captivating our attention. As we react to these stressors, our bodies mildly experience constant “fight-or-flight” sensations, causing us to focus our attention on everything but the very elements we truly need to survive. Adrenaline, stress chemicals, and cortisol- oh my! That’s Email Apnea for you.
“While we have a greater tendency toward email apnea or screen apnea, while doing email and texting on laptops and smartphones, we are at risk for breath holding or shallow breathing in front of any screen, any time. Not only does this increase stress levels, it impacts our attitude, our sense of emotional well-being, and our ability to work effectively.” – Linda Stone, Huffington Post.
As a former Asthmatic, I can speak first-hand about how shortness of breath can easily disturb the body’s intake and balance of oxygen, CO2, and NO (Nitric oxide, not the nitrous oxide from your dentist). When our airways are constricted, or we simply choose not to use them because we’re drowning in emails, our body exhales more NO than we can spare as we’re not taking enough in without shallow breaths. NO is much more important to our well-being than most of us are aware. “The immune system uses nitric oxide in fighting viral, bacterial and parasitic infections, and tumors. Nitric oxide transmits messages between nerve cells and is associated with the processes of learning, memory, sleeping, feeling pain, and, probably, depression…” according to Pearce Wright, in a briefing document prepared for the Royal Society and Association of British Science Writers.
What can we do to curb the effects of all this self-imposed madness? Breathe. Just breathe.
The beauty of this is that we already have everything we need to correct this common mistake. And, it’s very easy to train yourself to breathe better once you become more mindful about when it’s an issue. Personally, I can thank frequent meditation and years of Pilates for helping me kick bad breathing habits to the curb. For some Yoga, martial arts, and other physical activities as well as spiritual practices come into play for improving one’s ability to breathe deeply. Do yourself a favor and mind your body; every time you feel your brow start to scowl, your shoulders hunch, your diaphragm stiffen, your fists clench- take that as a signal from your body to pay attention to your breath. And remember, we’re aiming for deep, “belly-breathing” (inhaling through the nose, exhaling through the mouth), not breathing contained in the chest area or short, in-and-out the nose breaths.
While there are a number of visualization techniques online to help you take the deep breathing further, when I find myself caught up in a stressful email volley or tensing up at my desk, I try to take a moment to visualize that (perhaps) I’m inhaling small clouds of clean, pure, light air and exhaling clouds of dark, toxic stresses. The visualization helps me keep my inhales and exhales equally lengthy and simply taking a breather to become a better breather can improve overall cognitive function and mood. Remember, not a soul in sight has any idea what’s going through your head, so personalize a visualization that may work better for you (imagining waves and breathing with their rhythm, or inhaling pleasant aromas in a flower garden perhaps).
According to Mary Polce-Lynch, Ph.D. (of The Virginia Women’s Center), “the brain needs a lot of oxygen to function optimally (it uses about 80% of the oxygen present in the body), how we breathe has a huge impact on our mental health and physical well-being. When we are depressed or anxious, our breaths are shallow, our shoulders are slumped and our lungs are collapsed. This posture limits the amount of oxygen-rich blood that goes to our brains. With adjustments in our posture, deep breathing allows our lungs to expand to their full capacity and our body and mind to receive more oxygen. In addition, deep breathing can help alleviate depression by restoring balance to the biochemistry of the brain: the levels of feel good hormones (oxytocin and prolactin) increase as the level of the stress hormone (cortisol) decreases… Daily practice can improve circulation and blood pressure, which is why many cardiologists are teaching this technique to patients with heart disease.” As if we needed another reason to take a break from the incessant emailing.
Whatever your motivation is for becoming a better breather, remember that to achieve any definition of success, you’ll need your health to get you there. Woosah.