The concept of “email apnea” was coined by a researcher named Linda Stone who looks at the relationship between people and technology. She is also responsible for the “continuous partial attention” concept. Stone first wrote about email apnea in February 2008, and the topic rapidly traveled across the Internet through a network of blogs and news sites, raising questions about the way that people interact with computers and technology.
According to Stone, she first noticed the email apnea phenomenon in herself, as she was checking her email one day. Stone realized that she was holding her breath as she sifted through her inbox, as her brain whirled and she tried to figure out where to file things, what to respond to, and how to deal with the assortment of emails which arrives every morning. Once she noticed her own email apnea, Stone started looking around her, and she noted that other people apparently did the same thing, breathing shallowly, hyperventilating, or not breathing at all while checking their emails, using their phones, and engaging in similar tasks.
Stone was intrigued by this, and she put out a call to the technology world, asking people if they had noted the same issue. She also interviewed several scientists to learn more about the impact of irregular breathing on human health, and was disconcerted to learn that holding your breath, breathing shallowly, and hyperventilating can all have negative health effects, especially in the long term.
In the short term, disrupted breathing can increase feelings of stress, as it is linked with the vagus nerve, part of the “animal brain” which oversees basic flight and fight responses, among many other things. By breathing irregularly, the body triggers a nervous response, tensing, dumping chemicals into the nervous system, and confusing the body. Email apnea may also be linked with weight gain, according to Stone, as the vagus nerve is also involved in determinations of satiety; so by not breathing in the morning while you check your email, you may interfere with your lunchtime appetite.
You may have noticed email apnea in yourself, and unfortunately Stone offers no solutions to the problem. Being more mindful of your breathing in general can help, as can taking regular breaks from computer work. Such breaks also offer an opportunity to allow your eyes to adjust while you stretch your body and relax your mind. This will contribute to better long-term health, and it can dramatically reduce stress, to boot.