Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Do You Suffer from Writing Apnea?

A few days before I was married, almost 21 years ago, I was walking the eight blocks from our apartment to the daily newspaper at which I worked and, at a stoplight, happened to glance downward. Yikes! I was wearing two different shoes.

Not only were they different colors (one blue, one black) but the heels were of different heights. Was I possibly so stressed that I didn't even notice I was walking like a dork? Fortunately, the wedding ceremony — and the marriage itself — both turned out well, if I do say so myself.

Over the last little while, however, I've been living through the kind of pressure that makes organizing a wedding look as hard as eating a buttered croissant. My family and I have been renovating our house for the last year, and "camping" in a crummy rental for the duration. Finally, however, we've moved back home.

The last little while — filled with moving goods ranging from the absurdly fragile (how did we acquire so much fine pottery?) to the absurdly heavy (do we really need all these books?), dealing with workers still underfoot, endlessly scrubbing two houses and having a front yard filled with sand and a plywood path — have been much more challenging than getting married! And while I haven't again taking to wearing mismatched shoes, the move has made me more conscious of an even worse coping mechanism.

I forget to breathe.

You may think I'm joking but I'm not. My husband noticed this tendency in me many years ago ("remember: breathe," he tells me frequently). And my trainer has done a lot of work with me on breathing more slowly and deeply.

Earlier this year, two friends wrote to tell me about something called "email apnea."  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.

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, the first book I wrote, 8½ Steps To Writing Faster, Better, and every column I write, have all cost me many breaths.

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

Let me explain why this is a problem. First, when you're writing, your brain is even more important than your fingers. Brains need lots of oxygen to work properly. 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!

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

I now try to be conscious of my breathing all the time (well, except when I'm super-stressed by moving). I do breathing exercises throughout the day — while I'm waiting in lineups at the bank or grocery store are excellent times. And when I'm writing, I set my timer for 25 minutes (remember the Pomodoro?) and I spend the five-minute break doing stretches and breathing exercises.

Breathing. Don't forget to do it properly.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 11th 2010, 8:07 AM
Comment by: JOHN E. (BEDFORD, NH)
The article caught me breathless! :)
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 8:15 AM
Comment by: Paul G. (Collegeville, PA)
So... cigarette smoking is actually healthy for writers? Or, wait a sec... That would be a silly-ogism, I guess.
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
As always, Daphne, I love your writing and your way of expressing ideas. Enjoy your summer in your (one) home! And my voice trainer used to make my write BREATHE on my teaching notes because I would forget to breathe when I teach. So I guess that's teaching apnea!
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Arturo NY (KATONAH, NY)
I know I have sleep apnea. Never focused much on how it manifests itself during daylight hours.
Thank you for the wake up call.
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 11:42 AM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Thanks for the reminder about breathing! Sometimes we seem to forget that our brains and bodies start to break down when we neglect personal maintenance in the areas of breathing and sleeping.

With the shallow breathing that we do when concentrating, we are totally unaware of it. I wonder if I could add something to my computer system that, every five minutes or so, would remind me to breathe deeply.
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Giles S.
Thank you for two very useful articles. I have begun using the Pomodoro method with good results and I am sure that attending to my breathing will also produce good results. Keep those useful ideas coming.
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 4:58 PM
Comment by: Aj.Scribe (Dallas, TX)
Daphne is a remarkable woman.
Mary Lee commented about shallow breathing, which may be more shallow than we think. How about STOP, breathing --- how can that be?
I sit at the computer wearing a CPAP mask. Tested and diagnosed with mild apnea, finds no reason to discount extra support. The CPAP machine senses breathing rhythms, adjusting a better rhythym for proper delivery of oxygen to lungs and brain. Without the CPAP running, tests showed,I stop breathing 25 times an hour. Shallow,mild?--scary mild is more like it. I did not know that. With the CPAP, breathing goes shallow to a stop 5 times an hour. The CPAP senses shallow to a pausing stop, delivers a gentle extra puff of air into my lungs, reminding the brain it is part of the body, where the bellowing air-bags are, managing oxygen deliveries to the brain it needs to think for you. Think about that.
Friday May 14th 2010, 9:28 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Very physiologically correct! Nice job, Daphne.
I enjoyed the comments as well as the article.
Monday May 17th 2010, 10:45 AM
Comment by: Dwight C. (Columbia, MO)
I too have mild sleep apnea, asthma, smoke some, and tend to hold my breath when concentrating. I have an oxygen machine--not a Cpap-that I was supposed to use at night but I just couldn't sleep with it. I have, however, studied and explored many different breathing techniques. The two that I think are the best exercises are Genie O'Malley's "ibreathe life" series, and the breathing techniques developed by Carl Stough to exercise the diaphragm and remove stale air that accumalte in the lungs as a result of inadequate exahaltion. Both these techniques cand improve brain function and are purported to help with numerous other problems as well, such speech and voice problems, asthma, emphysema, anxiety and depression, and more. Check out these sites: http://www.breathingcoordination.com/selfhelp.html and http://www.highermindinstitute.com/clear-mind-system

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