If you are like most people working an office job, you may suffer from a condition called “email apnea.” The term was coined in 2008 by Linda Stone, a writer, researcher, and a former Microsoft and Apple executive. It has since been widely adopted to describe a new phenomenon: you’re typing up a paragraph in a presentation, reading an email, or writing a social media post—and unbeknownst to you, you’re holding your breath.

Those familiar with weight training know the importance of resisting the subconscious urge to hold your breath during strenuous exercise (like bench pressing) to avoid a sudden increase in blood pressure and other negative consequences. Similarly, holding your breath while under stress—whether you’re going through an overflowing inbox or listening to an angry rant from a coworker—can lead to negative health consequences, especially if done on a regular basis. 

Just like sleep apnea, NIH researchers found repetitive unconscious breath holding puts our nervous system into the sympathetic state, also known as “fight-or-flight,” and leads to a laundry list of diseases associated with chronic stress. Many of us are sadly familiar with some of these symptoms like poor concentration, memory problems, brain fog, anxiety, and other ailments of typical of modern-day desk workers.

Email apnea isn’t even the worst breath-related health risk we may encounter in our daily lives. In his 2020 bestseller Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, writer and scientific journalist James Nestor writes about mouth breathing, shallow upper chest breathing, and “overbreathing.” Nestor’s decade-long research on breathing revealed a direct connection between persistent dysfunctional breathing patterns and serious health problems like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, hormonal disorders, developmental delays, ADHD, and disrupted sleep.

But there’s hope for us stressed-out breath holders and shallow breathers! 

World-renowned researcher and breath expert Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage, says switching to nasal diaphragmatic breathing is the single most impactful thing you can do to improve your health. Just close your mouth, and breathe through your nose and into your abdomen. Now this may be easier said than done, but persistence and practice is key.

The next time you find yourself holding your breath while typing up email number 16 about an issue that could have been resolved in a short phone call, do this simple exercise: Stand up with your back straight, rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth, put your hands on the bottom part of your ribcage, and take five slow and easy breaths in and out through your nose, aiming for 4–6 seconds each per inhale and exhale. Feel your belly and ribcage slowly expand and contract as you breathe in and out.

This will pull your nervous system back into the parasympathetic state (also referred to as “rest-and-digest”) and reduce the unnecessary self-inflicted stress. If you’re brave enough, set an hourly reminder, and repeat this throughout the day. Five slow breaths per hour should be easy enough, right? Who knows. Maybe this small yet significant change will eventually become as natural as, well, breathing—and quickly put you on the road to better physical and mental health.

Deputy Team Lead, Designer
Anna is an award-winning Graphic Designer supporting the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) on a mission to meld form and function in all things digital and print. A lifelong...Read more