The more unexpected a stimulus is – say, getting a text notification out of the blue – the more likely the body is to perceive it as a threat.
Although these reflexes aren’t harmful on occasion, they become an issue if they’re switched on all day, every day, because it shifts “the nervous system into a chronic state of threat,” Porges says. Hours of shallow breathing can make you feel exhausted after a day of work, he says, even if that work isn’t particularly stressful.
The lack of movement that comes from sitting in front a screen might also be a contributor to screen apnoea, says Dr David Spiegel, director of the Centre on Stress and Health at Stanford Medicine. Disrupted breathing is the result of “a combination of not just what you’re doing but what you’re not doing,” he says, adding that he noticed screen apnoea among patients who worked high-stress jobs for long hours without getting much exercise or sleep.
There are a few simple practices you can adopt for better breathing habits, even in our increasingly screen-bound lives.
Set up breath reminders
A few gentle-sounding alerts throughout the day can remind you to check in on your breathing, Nestor says.
Ask yourself: are you breathing through your mouth (often an indicator of shallow breath)? Are you breathing at all? The awareness helps you snap out of it, he says.
If you catch yourself breathing shallowly or not at all, try sighing audibly, Spiegel says. Studies suggest that can be a quick and easy way to reset breathing patterns. In a study published in January, Spiegel and his team found that although many breathing techniques are valuable, cyclic sighing – in which the exhale lasts longer than the inhale – is particularly effective for improving mood.
Try larger screens
Porges hypothesises that the larger your screen, the less mentally taxing it can be. “As you narrow the visual field, you’re increasing the demand on your nervous system to exclude everything outside of it,” he says. Responding to messages on a desktop monitor often feels easier than responding on a phone, which “is a more intensely focused constriction of movement,” Spiegel says.
Make your breaks count
People will often step away from their computers for a break only to end up responding to messages on their phones, Porges says. He suggested carving out a few moments to do things that don’t require too much mental effort – such as listening to music – so that your nervous system can switch from a state of focus and vigilance to one of relaxation.
Adding physical activity to your breaks – such as walking in nature – is another way of restoring balance, Spiegel says. It’s a simple thing, he said, “that can help our bodies work better”.
The New York Times
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