Stop, Drop, and Breathe: Curing Email Apnea for Community Professionals

Jessica Fish
July 29, 2014
April 2, 2024
breathe deeply

Note: This article originally appeared on Leader Networks and was adapted for CMX.

Last month at CMX Summit, I began making deeper connections between the topics that I’m most devoted to these days: community building, mindfulness, and self-care. I was elated to hear multiple speakers talk about leading from the heart and trusting your gut. Unfortunately, many of the community builders I know are so busy they don’t always have the time to fully tune into their hearts and guts. It’s hard enough to hear your own thoughts over all the community chatter. After speaking with attendees about that disconnect (and their stress levels), I wanted to start a dialogue on self-care for community managers.

Like many of you I come to this work via a nonlinear path. Mine happened to include divinity school, and the study of various meditation, mindfulness, and conflict resolution techniques. As a community builder, I understand how depleting this work can be, and as a mindfulness facilitator I'm compelled to share what I've learned, knowing that we can all benefit by breathing a little deeper.

The Definition of Email Apnea

Linda Stone, a researcher, thought leader, and former executive at Apple and Microsoft, coined the terms email and screen apnea in 2008. She describes email apnea as the “temporary cessation of breath when we’re in front of a screen, especially when texting or doing email. This chronic breath-holding puts us in a state of fight or flight, affecting emotions, physiology, and attention.”

Email Apnea is the 'temporary cessation of breath when we’re in front of a screen, especially when texting or doing email. This chronic breath-holding puts us in a state of fight or flight, affecting emotions, physiology, and attention.'

The first time I heard the term "email apnea," I knew I had it, bad. I saw myself hunched over my computer, holding my breath as I attempted to manage the anxiety provoked by my overflowing inbox, along with my social and community feeds.

If you’re anything like the community professionals I’ve spoken to about this, you’re probably thinking something like “Holy pluot! This is MY life!” or “Breathing? Who’s got time for that?!” I encourage you to take a deep breath, exhale (Slowly! That’s the important part!) and let’s talk it out.

The Science of Email Apnea

Over the course of six months, Stone observed the breathing patterns of hundreds of people while seated at a computer. She found that four out of five held their breath or breathed shallowly while checking their email. National Institute of Health research conducted by Dr. Margaret Chesney and Dr. David Anderson found that regularly holding your breath correlates to stress-related illness: bodily acid rates rise, the kidneys reabsorb sodium, and our oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide levels are all thrown off. They also found a correlation between prolonged stress and inhibited breathing, leading to hypertension.

When we breathe deeply and slowly, we bolster our immune system, as well as our autonomic nervous system, which governs everything from heart rate to healthy organ function. This is why yoga instructors tell their students to “focus on the breath." Your breath really is connected to everything in your body.

When we’re slumped over computers, tablets, and phones, our chest is compressed and our breathing suffers. When we’re dealing with stress –email overload, angry tweets, hard-to -satisfy clients – our response is to gasp and hold it, and then hold it some more.

Community Professionals and Screen Apnea

Community professionals are in the business of care-taking. We’re stewards for communities ranging from a few hundred to millions of people. The opportunity for us to experience screen apnea increases according to the size and activity of our community.

Reading hundreds or thousands of comments a day? Managing egos? Responsible for illustrating how your community produces ROI? All this on top of your email? That’s fertile ground for some world-class breath-holding.

What can we do about it?

Ideally, we’d all be working at sleek, standing desks, exercising at lunch, and drinking kale with delight until will leave the office to tend to our rooftop gardens. Not your reality? Not mine either. Until we all reach work-life Nirvana, there are ways we can tackle the apnea issue.

3 Ways to Tackle Email Apnea

  1. Awareness. Are you holding your breath at the computer? Take notice of when and why this is happening. From my anecdotal research, we tense up most when writing critical emails, dealing with acerbic community members, or commenting on threads by thought leaders or senior executives in communities. Once you’ve pinpointed your triggers, remind yourself to check your posture and breathing before you start typing. It’s simple, but it really does prepare you to better communicate online.
  2. Exhale with gusto. Stone has found that exhaling for at least twice as long as you inhale helps reset the body. She recommends breathing in for a count of three, holding for a count of two, and exhaling for six. Try. It. Out. Feels pretty great, right?
  3. Incorporate reminders to breathe in your workspace. I have an index card taped to my screen that reads “Breathe. Hold. Exhale.” Change your computer log-on to something like “KeepBreathing.” If you’re a Chrome user, I recommend a beautiful free app called Momentum. A stunning photograph pops up every time you open a new browser window with a space to set a “focus.” Most days, I set it to something simple like, “breathe” or “take a walk at lunch.”  (There’s also a nice to-do list feature.)
The Momentum App

Linda Stone likes the emWave device by HeartMath, which tracks heart rate with an ear clip and teaches users to better manage stress levels.


Communities require a lot of energy, and we know they do best when we’re fully engaged and when we are curating authentic and generative conversation. In order to do that, especially over a long period of time, we’ve got to be healthy and grounded. Mindful breathing is an essential part of the community professionals' self-care tool box, and with a bit of time and attention, you can kick the apnea habit to the curb.

Now it's your turn: Have you had an apnea a-ha moment? How do you cope with screen malaise? Got advice for others that you'd like to share? Tell us in the comments, we'd love to hear your story!

---Image Credit Thomas Frost Jensen

Jessica Fish
July 29, 2014
April 2, 2024

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