Email apnea: holding your breath while you answer mail

Linda Stone (who coined the phrase "continuous partial attention") has noticed that people hold their breath and breathe shallowly when answering email, a phenomenon she'd dubbed "email apnea." She's posted a little rumination on the long-term health impacts of impaired email breathing.
I wanted to know -- how widespread is email apnea*? I observed others on computers and BlackBerries: in their offices, their homes, at cafes. The vast majority of people held their breath, or breathed very shallowly, especially when responding to email. I watched people on cell phones, talking and walking, and noticed that most were mouth-breathing and hyperventilating. Consider also, that for many, posture while seated at a computer can contribute to restricted breathing.

Does it matter? How was holding my breath affecting me?

I called Dr. Margaret Chesney, at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Research conducted by Dr. Margaret Chesney and NIH research scientist Dr. David Anderson demonstrated that breath-holding contributes significantly to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium, and as the oxygen (O2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitric oxide (NO) balance is undermined, our biochemistry is thrown off.



  1. I don’t think it’s just email. My wife has long complained that listening to me write long fiction is disturbing because I gasp and pause and generally have some kind of apneatic reaction to the ebb and flow of whatever it is I’m writing. I don’t have sleep apnea, though.

  2. I hold my breath and tense up whenever I’m trying to concentrate on stuff, I’ve noticed that- with emails it’s like a race against time because something will inevitably distract me before I am done. So it’s like…hold your breath…typetypetypetype send it…breathe.

  3. I bet Yoga would help train people not to do that. At least Ashtanga for sure spends a good bit of its focus teaching regular breathing.

  4. I was recently elected president of my condo building’s “strata” council (or “condo association” or “homeowners association” for other regions), and following that, I noticed that I absolutely *dreaded* checking my GMail.

    It’s tense and stressful to deal with some of those things, and my body reacts accordingly.

    This research doesn’t come as a surprise to me, but it does make me wonder what sort of anthropological process is at work. Does it have something to do with our ancestral need for careful thought and planning when hunting, i.e. suppressing our breathing in an effort to steady one’s aim – or, in this case, focus one’s concentration?

  5. I’m extremely reluctant to answer emails, and now that I think about it, I do breathe differently while I’m composing them.

  6. musicians are famous for this. there are a number of classical recordings where you can hear the string players gasping for breath. obviously wind players have a different problem. makes playing guitar and singing quite the challenge. yoga has helped, dc, totally helped. but man i’m having a hard time posting this and breathing simultaneously.

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