Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 156  Breathing Problems – Screen Apnea?

The librarian shook her head and left us in the small magazine room. I had just squatted down and took three deep breaths and then stood and blew hard on my thumb. I passed out; my second time. We were just playing; seeing what would happen. I was a senior in high school.

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

The first time I passed out was in eighth grade during the winter Christmas show. We were all dressed in white shirts buttoned at the collar. I was just singing my heart out and then I remember feeling funny. Next thing I knew Coach Miller was hovering over me with smelling salts. I was laying back stage behind the singing choir. I had forgotten to bend my knees and breathe; passed right out.

I know, breathing is natural.  We do it without thinking, but sometimes - we forget. It seems that when we look at computer screens or television screens we change our ordinary breathing patterns. It is called screen apnea. I heard this story on SPARK a CBC radio program. You can find a podcast of the show on the Internet.

We don’t breathe out. We are becoming a nation, or world, of shallow breathers. My granddaughter has been having some breathing problems.  During exercise she finds herself unable to breath. She has to stop exercising and wait impatiently until she can continue. Why does this happen? No one seems to know. Perhaps screen apnea is the answer. She uses computers a lot and read a whole lot. Maybe she has conditioned herself into not breathing out.

I had one other breathing problem that may be related to this phenomenon. I was teaching a class in philosophy at the time and during out of work hours was being audited by the IRS. Nietzsche was the topic in philosophy; “Living dangerous’ “Stepping out on the tight rope”, that kind of stuff. Outside of class the IRS was not accepting some claimed expenses. I was young and couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t just take my word for it.

One day while teaching I started to get short on breath. I asked the students about the temperature in the room. “Its fine” they replied. I told them I need to get some air and walked outside. I still had trouble breathing. A student came out and walked me down to the nurse’s office. My chest was tight and my hands and feet, then arms and legs became numb. I knew that I was dying. Then I was gone. Next thing I heard was the voice of a paramedic soothingly telling me that I was alright over and over again. I wasn’t dead. Quiet a moment.

I was wired for an EKG. It showed my heart to be good. “Hyperventilation”, the medic said. “Symptoms are similar to heart attack. You just forgot to exhale." If diagnosed early enough you just breathe into a paper bag. That cuts down on the oxygen you are inhaling. Balance is returned to your system and there is no problem. So there can be a problem not breathing in and sometimes the problem is not breathing out.

Every morning I do Tai Chi. One point of focus is breathing. Breathe in deeply and exhale completely. It is repeated over and over. It is not taken for granted. It is not assumed that you will be breathing correctly without conscious effort. It is a daily ritual. The hope is that it will become part of your life on a breath by breath basis.

Yoga also emphasizes this. And when one is an athlete breathing is always a consideration. Coaches are always telling their athletes to take a few deep breaths and let them out completely. It helps with relaxations and focus. Correct breathing becomes part of an athlete’s life without them giving it much thought.

For those that do not do aerobic exercise on a daily basis, do not practice the art of breathing correctly, breathing problems can become a life problem.

Screen apnea now appears on our radar. I wonder just how widespread it is? Perhaps most of us have it or are developing it. It is hard to take a deep breath when one is sitting bent over a screen or book. The body just doesn’t work that way. We are built for walking across the savanna with our head up and our eyes wide open. Time to take a deep breath and exhale completely.


This is Retirement Talk.




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