Do You Hold Your Breath At work?

We already know that sitting in front of screens for any length of time can be bad for your posture and bad for your back. Now it turns out that just the act of concentrating on a screen might even be bad for your health. Luckily there’s an easy fix.

Linda Stone, a former IT executive now making a name for herself as an  innovation consultant has identified what she is calling, rather convincingly, Screen Apnea, which she defines as, the “temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while working (or playing!) in front of screens” 1

Stone had been using breathing techniques to address chronic respiratory infections when she noticed that her breathing changed for the worse when using her computer. This led her to research the changes in breathing patterns when people were working at their computers. In the course of her research she discovered the phenomenon was not uncommon.

Breathing, it turns out, is not as simple as many people presume. I’ve written about the role of the diaphragm previously, here.

In short, a normal relaxed breath when we are at rest should involve the contraction of our diaphragm, the gentle straightening and then relaxation of our spine, movement of our lower ribs, and a relaxation and then tightening of our abdomen and other core muscles. The breath should be deep and regular. Our nervous system is in resting-digesting mode.

But using screens can alter our breathing patterns. A study of the psychophysiological pattern associated with texting found that for many of the participants  “receiving text messages evoked arousal as indicated by breath holding or shallow breathing and increased muscle tension and skin conduction”. 2

Shallow or fast breathing is not bad for us, or at least it is not bad for us when we doing if for the right reasons.

We increase our number of breaths per minute when we exercise or are frightened - our fight-flight response. This gives us a critical boost in oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange as our muscles kick in to help us fight a tiger or run for a train.


When we are in this state, either as a result of exercising or stress, our  other maintaince and healing body functions are put on hold for later. But when that later ends up hours down the road - or when our fight or flight keeps constantly kicking in when we are at our desks - our  body suffers. We can experience any or all of the following, stiff joints, bloating, IBS symptoms, cold hands and feet, fatigue, anxiety and impairment of concentration. 3

We are not well adapted for fight or flight chemicals to flood our bodies in response to a work email or an annoying social media incident. Those hours we spend in front of screens at our desk or on our phones take a cummulative toll on our health.

What can we do to address this?

  • It isn’t hard. When you are about to focus your concentration on a screen, check your breathing. Slow deep breaths will serve as a reset for your central nervous system. Make sure the breaths are coming from your lower chest and tummy. Actively check your breathing regularly throughout the day.

Simply being aware that your breathing can alter will help you remember to change some poor breathing habits. If you find it hard to alter your breathing patterns, you find they occur beyond screen time, or the attempt itself causes stress, then Osteopathy can help diagnose and address any deeper issues.


1. Linda Stone. Are You Breathing? Do You Have Email Apnea? Nov 24, 2014. https://lindastone.net/2014/11/24/are-you-breathing-do-you-have-email-apnea/

2.Psychophysiological Patterns During Cell Phone Text Messaging: A Preliminary Study. I-Mei Lin, Erik Peper. Applied Psychophysiology and Feedback. March 2009, Vol 34, Issue 1, pp53-57

3. Folgering H. The Pathophysiology of Hyperventilation Syndrome. Monaldi Arch Chest Dis., 1999. 54(4): p. 365-72


Robert Fendall