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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.
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.
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.