Do you suffer from writing apnea?

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Join me this week as I take an important detour into the concept of protecting your health while you write. Contractors and nurses may need to take certain steps to prevent injury, but so do writers. And one of the biggest secrets is remembering to breathe!

A few days before I was married, almost 31 years ago, I was walking the eight blocks from our apartment to the daily newspaper at which I then worked and, at a stoplight, happened to glance downward. Yikes! I was wearing two different shoes. Not only were they different colours (one blue; one black) but the heels were of different heights. Was I possibly so stressed that I didn’t even notice how I was walking? Fortunately, the wedding ceremony — and the marriage itself — both turned out well, if I do say so myself.

But stress can make us do crazy things. And, for writers, one of the craziest may be forgetting to breathe. I know, because I forget to do it all the time.

You may think I’m joking, but I’m not. My husband noticed my habit many years ago (“Remember: breathe,” he tells me frequently). My Pilates teacher often makes the same observation. And I’ve often been aware of it myself. When I’m sitting at my desk, producing words, I end up holding my breath while I try to think what to write next.

Some years ago, a couple of my subscribers wrote to tell me about something called “email apnea.”  (Thanks, Susan and Naomi!) This phrase, invented by researcher Linda Stone, and borrowed from “sleep apnea” — a medical condition in which people stop breathing for a few seconds at night, when they’re asleep — refers to our inclination to hold our breath when checking email.

Stone detected the tendency in herself and then noticed it in other people, too — she saw they breathed shallowly or failed to breathe at all while checking email. Stone then started investigating the impact of irregular breathing and was shocked to learn the negative effect it can have on our bodies.

First, when you’re doing intellectual work like writing, your brain is even more important than the rest of your body. Brains need lots of oxygen to work properly. They may represent only two percent of our body weight but they use 20% of the oxygen we require. Breathe better and you’ll think better and therefore write better.

Second, good breathing is essential to good posture. If you never breathe deeply enough to fully expand your ribcage, then your diaphragm and lungs aren’t doing what they’re meant to. In my case: guilty and guilty. This is a bad trap designed to give you hunched-over shoulders and a permanently aching back.

Third, irregular breathing triggers a nervous response in the body that can dump toxins into your system, weaken your immune system, raise your blood pressure and increase stress, tension and anxiety. And here you thought writing was doing that!

Frankly, I know I have writing apnea. When I write, I forget about details like sitting up straight, drinking enough water and, well, breathing. The first book I edited, a cookbook called Five-Star Food, and the first book I wrote (which many of you own), 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better have both cost me many breaths.

Not because I’m nervous. But because I’m concentrating so hard. I’ve been doing this for many years now, and am as linked to this bad habit as Abbot is tied to Costello. And I suspect many of you forget to breathe, too.

Most of us are born knowing how to breathe properly, but we lose the habit as we age and replace it with little shallow breaths or even temporarily forget to breathe. Don’t let this happen to you!

If you find yourself forgetting to breathe while you write, here are three suggestions you can follow:

  • Be mindful of your posture. Slumping and slouching make it harder to breathe properly. Protect the natural curves in your back and  make sure they’re still present while you’re sitting. (Use a cushion, if necessary.) Distribute your body weight evenly on both sitting bones. Bend your knees at a right angle. Keep your feet flat on the floor.
  • Bring your attention to your breathing. If you know you tend to hold your breath while writing, then figure out some way to remind yourself to breathe. You might consider setting an alarm on your watch or phone for every five minutes. (Yes, I know this will lead to many interruptions, but you could do it for no more than an hour a day so as to rebuild your habit.)
  • Do regular breathing exercises . Ukrainian doctor Konstantin Buteyko developed a breathing method designed to help people with asthma and sleep disturbances. You can read about his approach, or see videos about it on YouTube. While medical opinion is divided on the benefits of these exercises for asthmatics, there is nothing to stop you from doing them to improve your own breathing practice. American doctor Andrew Weil also offers three useful breathing exercises.

Breathing is something we all do every day. But that doesn’t mean we’re doing it in the best, most helpful way.  Make the effort to ensure your brain is getting all the oxygen it needs in order to write.

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My video podcast last week aimed to solve a mindmapping problem.  Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel.  If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Do you ever forget to breathe when writing? What do you do to help yourself? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of Crucial Accountability by Kerry Patterson et al. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

This is an updated version of a post that first appeared on the Publication Coach blog in October 2010.

Posted April 10th, 2018 in Power Writing

  • KSW

    Thank you for this post. Wow. Wow.

  • Tom Morrisey

    Thanks a lot. Now I’m feeling light-headed from all the deep, full-lunged breathing I was doing while reading this post.

  • Philip

    This post hits home for me. Years ago I thought I was having a heart attack. Turns out that all my chest pains were a result of hyperventilation, or just plain improper breathing. While writing (even this post) I especially have to remind myself to take in air. When I start to feel light-headed it’s usually a signal that I’ve stopped breathing. Oxygen. A good thing.

    • Could be you’ve stopped breathing or it could also be that you’re breathing too much. (Hyperventilating.) Both are signs to pay attention to your breathing.

  • Michael Tevlin

    I’ve never thought about breathing and writing before, but I will now! I am a daily meditator, and so my practice may help. I am also a guitar player, and I have had teachers who promoted the benefits of good breathing and posture in guitar playing. In jazz, musicians like guitarist Pat Metheny often talk about how their playing is modeled on horn players, who obviously have to take a deep breath before they play a musical phrase. Metheny’s musical phrases are like breathing itself. Maybe that’s how we writers should think about writing and breathing.

    • I always seem deep connections between writers and musicians. Now you’ve given me an even deeper way to think about the similarities. Thanks for that, Michael!

  • TL Cooper

    I noticed the tendency to hold my breath when concentrating quite a while ago. Practicing yoga and meditation have both helped me be more mindful of my breath, but I still find myself falling back on the old habit sometimes, especially when I feel overwhelmed by my schedule or am writing something particularly intense. I’ve found that sipping on a cup of tea or a glass of water as I work will often break the breathhold without distracting me too much from the project I’m working on.

  • Laura Brown

    Your article explains a lot! I hadn’t really noticed myself holding my breath while writing, but I think that may explain why I come back to my desk so refreshed after taking a walk. My productivity and attention wane dramatically when I’ve been sitting still for too long. One thing I’ve found helpful is to have my fitness tracker remind me when I’ve been sitting still too long. A quick lap around the building gets me breathing more deeply again, so I can focus on writing. Thanks!

    • Yes, wearing a fitness tracker is a really great idea. Getting exercise forces us to get more oxygen to our brains. And without that oxygen, our attention clearly wanes!

  • Paul Schratz

    I suffer from EVERYTHING apnea. Someone once told me I hold my breath or breath shallowly when I’m stressed. I try to remember now to inhale for 5 seconds and exhale for 10 seconds when stressed.

    • Good idea, Paul, Try some of the breathing exercises, too. It’s probably better for you to try to make deeper breathing more of a habit.

  • Lisa and Bruce Miller – Pond

    I too forget to breathe when I am working hard, and when I am exercising. It does seem very odd to need to be reminded to do something so essential, but it helps to know that I am not the only one out there who gets light-headed when working. I am grateful for your suggestions—something more I can add to my recommendations to students at exam time!

    • I hadn’t even thought of students doing exams, but, of course, they’d be especially vulnerable to forgetting to breathe. Thanks for mentioning that idea!

  • Jagadish Kumar

    Thank you for suggesting Andrew Weil, Daphne. Learnt three useful breathing exercises.

  • Emily Agnew

    Thanks Daphne, will be interested to try the Weill exercises.

  • Mirwais

    Thank you for the useful post Dophne, I have to admit that breathing problem is something I noticed not just during writing, but also other activities. I will definitely consider your useful instructions from now on! 🙂

    Many thanks!

    • You’re welcome. I hope you find some of the exercises mentioned above to be helpful!

  • T Fasolino

    I never dreamed I would have forget to breath! As a nurse and educator, I repeatedly say ‘don’t forget to breath’. Gosh, focus now. Thanks!

    • It’s always easier to give instructions than to follow them ourselves! (I know because I give a lot of instructions so this rule applies especially to me!!!)

  • Rickey Gold

    OMG. I DO this when I’m writing! I’ll be so engrossed in what I’m thinking/creating that I’m slouched over my keyboard and can stay that way for way too long. Practicing yoga has helped me to catch myself……I now square my shoulders, tuck in my tummy, get up and walk around and grab a glass of water.