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The Body

Chronic Breath-Holding and How to Let It Go

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Poor ergonomics can impair breath, while anger, pain, and frustration stemming from hyperfocus on our computers can bring on bouts of chronic breath-holding.

Have you ever caught yourself holding your breath? This involuntary breath-holding may not even happen in a period of stress or anticipation. Perhaps you’re just sitting on your couch or in front of your computer when you suddenly realize you haven’t been breathing. If you stop to think about it, you may wonder how often this happens and why your body isn’t automatically doing it for you. You might even ruminate on it for a bit, wondering if chronic breath-holding happens more than you realize. You’re not alone.

The Biology of Breath

We’re born knowing how to breathe, of course. Our brain tells our body to take in oxygen, which we need in order to produce the energy that keeps us running. But this process of turning oxygen into energy creates carbon dioxide. That byproduct is toxic to our bodies, so we exhale it. While we tend to think of our lungs as being in charge of respiration, it’s actually all in your head—more specifically, the brain’s medulla oblongata.

The medulla transmits signals from your brain to your body via the spinal column, and it houses receptors that detect when the carbon dioxide level in our blood is too high. When that signal is processed, it forces us to exhale. Sure, we can hold our breath voluntarily, but our medulla won’t let us do it for too long; before we can really harm ourselves, we faint and our brain gives the signal to start breathing again.

But the question remains: If we’re hardwired to breathe, why do some of us still experience involuntary, chronic breath-holding?

Chronic Breath-Holding and “Screen Apnea”

Physiologically speaking, we can still impede our respiration (even involuntarily) despite our medulla doing its best to keep us functioning. Our trachea, lungs, and diaphragm, for example, are integral parts of the respiratory system that can all be restricted by something as simple as our posture. Researchers have shown that poor ergonomics, such as looking down at our phones, lurching forward in our chairs to stare at our computer screens, or slumping on our couches while we play videos games or tap away on our laptops can affect our diaphragms and lead to impaired breathing.

And the relationship between technology and breathing isn’t just physical; there’s an emotional component too. Our digital world is stressful, and the near-constant presence of our phones, watches, and computers makes for a life full of distractions, bad news, negative feedback, and other things that can have negative impacts on our stress levels. We even get upset when our buffet of bad news doesn’t load fast enough. And since bouts of shallow breathing and chronic breath-holding can be brought on by anger, pain, and frustration, it’s no surprise that tech-users are often bad breathers.

In 2008, a former Apple executive named Linda Stone coined the term “email apnea” after noticing that she unconsciously held her breath while staring at her work email. After speaking with physiologists and psychologists, she realized that the combination of bad posture and hyperfocus on a screen often resulted in involuntary breath-holding. In other words, people tend to zone out and lose touch with their bodies when they become entranced by their screens. In those moments when we’re focused on something outside ourselves, we sometimes have trouble taking deep, healthy breaths.

But we can’t just tell our bosses that we’re no longer checking e-mail. And you don’t need to shun technology in order to prevent chronic breath-holding—you just need to become more aware.

Counteracting Chronic Breath-Holding

There are plenty of ways to explore your breathing and learn to become more aware of chronic breath-holding. But the good news is that you don’t need to master a rigorous breathwork program to reap the benefits of better respiration. You just need to practice breathing more slowly.

Slow breathing even has benefits beyond our respiratory system. It can stimulate the parts of our brains that impact relaxation responses, attention, alertness, stress tolerance, anger, anxiety, and even mood disorders such as depression.

[Read: “4 Better Ways to Breathe.”]

Some research in this area can be very vague, drawing loose connections between any sort of breathwork and self-reported feelings of “wellness.” But a scientific review of breathing studies found that any breathwork involving less than 10 breaths per minute had a measurable effect on fMRI and EEG readings. And slow breathing didn’t need to be accompanied by yoga poses or guided visualization exercises to make it happen (though, of course, those extra elements may have further beneficial effects or help someone maintain a slow-paced breathing routine). All you need to do is inhale and exhale, using some way of counting your breaths so that you know you’ve taken roughly 10 breaths or less in under 60 seconds.

Waiting to Exhale? Don’t!

Slow-paced breathing is best done in a quiet place where you can focus on counting the seconds of your inhales and exhales. Do this anywhere you can to get started:

  • Sit up as straight as you can (or lie on your back) so your belly is free to fill with air.
  • Take a deep, slow breath in through your nose, letting your chest and then belly rise as your lungs fill up, keeping your shoulders stationary. (Typically, you’d want to try for a count of 2-4 seconds on your inhale.)
  • Then slowly release the breath through your mouth. (Here, try for 4-6 seconds.)
  • Continue for 2-3 minutes and take a moment to think about how you feel.

When you have the luxury of concentrating on your breath, try counting those inhales and exhales to see what it’s like to get to under 10 per minute. But most importantly, don’t let little setbacks frustrate you. Even if it’s allergy season and inhaling through your nose is hard, you can breathe in through your mouth— it’s most important to fill your lungs and then empty them.

[Read: “Five Kinds Of Breaths Everyone Should Take.”]

It’s also helpful to monitor your body at first to see if you are a “vertical” or a “horizontal” breather. In other words, do you lift and lower your shoulders when you breathe (vertical) or do you see your belly expand and contract (horizontal)? The latter is what you’re aiming for since it’s indicative of a deep, diaphragmatic breath. Vertical breathers are more likely to be subconscious breath holders.

Of course, those belly breaths are a lot easier when you practice good posture as well. And as you might imagine, opening up the front of your body by not hunching over sets off a chain reaction that can alleviate things like lower back pain that you may have developed from all that screen time.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Breathing is something we take for granted most of the time, and yet many of us have inadvertently developed habits that impede good respiration. The great part about taking a little time to practice breathing is that it can put you in touch with what’s going on in your body in general and allow you to catch yourself holding your breath more often.

Our desks and devices aren’t going away any time soon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take charge our of own bodies to make sure they don’t harm our health.

Start or end your day with this guided breath practice for balancing your energy.