So it turns out that not only are our smartphones and computers commanding an increasing portion of our waking hours, but they are distracting us from even breathing. A Times story this week described what is known as screen apnea. This is a phenomenon in which the body’s stress response is triggered repeatedly by the mental energy required to determine what to do with each email, text, or direct message.
The story referred to a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Stephen Porges, who studies “behavioral neuroscience with an emphasis on the relation between autonomic nervous system and social behavior.” Dr. Porges described an effect of screen-based stimuli in which the nervous system hustles to decipher each message. The mind has to instantly know whether it is friend or foe, so to speak, as we might react while walking through a quiet forest if we suddenly hear a branch crack behind us.
This mental effort causes breathing to become shallow, when, as the the Times writer put it, we freeze, process, and come up with a plan of action. The same thing happens when we read an email. For those of us sitting at computers all day or having smartphones in our hands, the nervous system stays in “a constant state of threat,” Dr. Porges said. It is no wonder that our inboxes pile up.
Among the remedies for screen apnea is setting a regular reminder to check on our breathing. A sigh, as one of the editors at The Star is prone to, can actually reset the breath. Light breath exercises, for example, taking air in through the nose then exhaling slowly, can improve mood and reduce anxiety. A recent study found that “cyclic sighing was the most effective way to boost spirits and reduce our respiratory rate. But there’s more — breathwork tamps down negative emotions, including anxiety.
Taking a walk in nature helps. There have been plenty of studies showing that the more something inspires a sense of awe — think of a stroll along the roiling winter ocean shore — the greater the calming power. Putting down the phone and shutting the computer to step outside and listen to the birds or look at the sky is the best antidote to the constant stress of our modern lives.