What’s the most precious substance in the world? Not necessarily the rarest, but rather the one we literally can’t live without? Well, despite all the joy that diamonds and pearls may (or may not) bring, most people across the world get by just fine without these treasures. So let’s think of what’s really needed for survival. Humans can go a few weeks without food; a few days without water, but only a few minutes without air. By this logic it seems pretty obvious: just as we can’t live without air, it’s pretty easy to figure then that breathing is one of the most important things in our lives.
And yet, for the majority of people who find themselves staring at screens for most of the day since COVID and lockdowns became “the normal”, breathing is something we spend far too little time paying attention to. The mass adoption of screens into every facet of our lives has brought an unintended consequence: screen apnea (or email apnea), which refers to the condition of holding one’s breath while being aroused into a stress reaction by the contents of your screen (typically work-related content such as email, messages, and other information sources that contain challenging feedback). According to some studies, nearly 80% of digital professionals who spend the majority of their day on screens suffer from this condition. The widespread incidence of screen apnea, which results in measurably increased stress levels and increased heart rate, reveals the fundamental imbalance at the core of our relationship with technology. The abundance of new ways to access information and on-demand content, has introduced a host of challenges: from over-stimulation, to stress, to screen addiction, to rise in cyber-bullying and abusive speech across social media.
In the face of mounting challenges caused by the proliferation of screens, it’s worth revisiting the many health benefits that can come from breathwork. Breathing isn’t an simply unconscious survival mechanism, but when used intentionally, it can regulate stress, improve energy, and enhance cognitive performance.
The simple act of sighing, which draws twice as much air as a normal breath, has been shown to act as a ‘reset button’, helping to restore balance both physically (in terms of respiration rate) and emotionally, from the perspective of mood and relaxation. Active breathing exercises, such as bhastrika or “bellows breath” that feature prominently in yoga, are an ancient practice of increasing energy and focus in sudden bursts, which many practitioners in the modern world are finding an effective way to fight off fatigue from back-to-back video calls.
Breathwork can also be used with technology to deliver health benefits. Scientists have confirmed that color exposure can create an emotional response, both excitement as well as mood relaxation. By combining colors and breathing with software that adapts colors of UI screen elements, researchers are exploring a new type of “Adaptive Interfaces for Digital Well-being”, which would combine the traditional breathing practices with modern technology to deliver a more human-centric approach to screen time. Initial results have shown that color personalization can help users to be more relaxed when using screens for work, as evidenced by up to 20% decrease in average heart rate. Studies also suggest that color personalization can improve memory retention, so the full positive impact of this technology is only beginning to be understood.
Intuitively, one of the most powerful benefits of deep breathing is that it helps us to slow down and think. Practically everyone who uses email or messaging apps all day has gotten carried away by emotion and sent off a hasty response, using language they would be unlikely to use if talking to the recipient face-to-face. Technology makes it all too easy to use aggressive words because we are removed from directly observing the consequences. But breathing can create a more balanced experience of using technology because it helps us take a step back from stress and focus on using technology to connect to other people.
The next time you are at your computer, pay attention to how you are feeling in your body as you get exposed to stressful messages. You may notice yourself tensing up or holding your breath -- and these physical stress positions may have an impact on the stress you are feeling emotionally. And when that happens, don’t forget to breathe, not just because it can help you relax, not just because it helps you stay focused on the present moment, but most importantly of all, because your life depends on it.
Published in Best Holistic Life Magazine November 2021