I never realized that I braced my shoulders and held my breath while typing. Now I know the importance of not doing this, and have tools to change.
–Secretary in training program, San Francisco State University
Most employees who work on computers experience discomfort ranging from neck, shoulder, back, and arm pain to eye irritation and exhaustion–a cluster of symptoms that we have labeled Stress Immobilization Syndrome. A major cause of this is the holding of chronic and unnecessary muscle tension of which the employee is usually unaware. This often leads to illness. Doing the following practice will help you to become aware of these patterns:
Sit on the edge of your chair and hold your mouse and then begin to draw with your mouse, the letters and numbers of your street address; however, draw the letters backward by beginning with the last letter of the street address. Draw each letter about 1 1/4 inch in height, and then click the left button after having drawn the letter. Continue to draw the next letter. Draw as quickly as possible without making any mistakes as if your boss is waiting for the results. Start now, and continue for the next 30 seconds. Now, observe what happened.
Did you hold your breath, tightened your neck, shoulders, and trunk, forgot to blink as you drew the letters with your mouse? Imagine what would happen if you worked like this hour after hour: Tension headaches, shoulder pain, exhaustion?
Research at San Francisco State University has demonstrated that with biofeedback 95% of employees automatically raised their shoulders, and maintained low-level tension in their forearms while keyboarding and mousing.They also increased their breathing rates , and decreased eye blinking rates. Almost all employees studied thought that their muscles were relaxed when they were sitting correctly at the computer, even though they were tense, as is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 is a representative recording of a person working at the computer. Note how 1) forearm and shoulder (deltoid/trapezius) muscle tension increased as the person rests her hands on the keyboard without typing; 2) respiration rate increased during typing and mousing; 3) shoulder muscle tension increased during typing and mousing; and 4) there were no rest periods in the shoulder muscles as long as the fingers are either resting, typing, or mousing. By permission from: Peper, E. (2007). Stay Healthy at the Computer: Lessons Learned from Research. Physical Therapy Products. April.
While working at the computer most people are captured by the computer, and are unaware of how their bodies react. Computing during the day and surfing the net at night, most people report neck and shoulder tension, back pain, eye irritation and/or fatigue otherwise labeled as Stress Immobilization Syndrome, see figure 2.
Figure 2. Distribution of reported symptoms experienced by college students (average age 26.3 years) while working on the computer near the end of their semester (reproduced with permission from Peper, E., & Gibney, K, H. (1999). Computer related symptoms: A major problem for college students. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. 24 (2), 134.
How to reverse and interrupt Stress Immobilization Syndrome
When working at the computer, remind yourself to
- Interrupt your computer work every few minutes to wiggle and move
- Breathe diaphragmatically
- Get up and do large movements (stretch or walk) for a few minutes.
- Smile and realize that the work stress it is not worth dying over
When implementing these simple changes, employees report significant reduction in symptoms. As one participant stated, “There is life after five.”
For detailed tips how to maintain health at the computer download Healthy Computing Email Tips
Before going to sleep in a 24/7 world, we watch TV, surf the web to catch the latest news, check Facebook to connect with our friends, or glance at our smart phones for the latest emails. Although it seems the normal thing to do, evening and night time light disrupts our biological rhythms and can affect our health and even increase risk for cancer.
Exposure to light in the evening or night is very recent in evolutionary terms. For hundreds of thousands of years the night was dark as we hid away in caves to avoid predators. Only in the last few thousand years did candles or oil lamps with their yellow orange light illuminate the dark. The fear of the dark is primordial– in the dark we were the prey. During those prehistoric times, our fear was reduced by huddling together for warmth and safety as we slept. Although our present life is far removed from our evolutionary past, our evolutionary past is embedded within us and controls much of our biology and psychology.
These days, while sleeping we turn on a night light to feel safe or allow us to see in case we have to get up. For many of us, darkness still feels unsafe since as babies the fear was amplified as we slept alone in a crib without feeling the tactile signals of safety provided by direct human contact. Presently, light permeates our night: the flashing status light of the standby mode of the TV, the blinking lights of our cell phone charger, the soft glow of the alarm clock, and the street lights or flashing headlights of the cars leaking around the edges of the blinds and curtains. These lights and especially the blue light produced by LED, TV and computer screens switches off the production of melatonin as shown in the figure 1.
Figure 1. The white line represents the wavelengths of light that suppress the secretion of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. The light spectrum of LED, TV and Computer screens has a strong peak in the blue and thus inhibits melatonin production and affecting our circadian rhythm. From: Dijk, D & Winsky-Sommerer R. (2012). Sleep, New Scientist Instant Expert 20. New Scientist, 213(2850), i-vii.
Melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy, contributes to regulating our circadian rhythms. When exposed to the blue component of the light before going to sleep, melatonin production is suppressed, our sleep onset is delayed, and sleep is more disturbed. Equally harmful is light exposure during the night because it suppresses the body’s melatonin production which affects and disturbs our circadian rhythm as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Exposure of light during the night, decreases melatonin production. From: Sack, R. L., Blood, M. L., Hughes, R. J., Lewy, A. J. (1998). Circadian-Rhythm Sleep Disorders in Persons Who Are Totally Blind. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 92, (3).
The more our biological rhythms are disturbed the greater the risk of illness. For example, shift workers and airline cabin attendants have significant increased risk of accidents and illnesses such as cancer. Studies have shown that lab rats’ cancer cells proliferate significantly more when lights are kept on during the night than in the control group who remain in the dark. The disturbance of biological rhythms is usually associated with increased illness and reduced longevity. This disruption acts as an allostatic load (or a stressor on the system).
To promote health, return to your evolutionary roots and support your circadian rhythms by reducing light exposure before going to sleep and by sleeping in total darkness. Promote sleep onset, reduce sleep disturbances and support your circadian rhythm by following these simple steps:
- Do not watch LED, TV or computer screens an hour before going to sleep to enhance melatonin production.
- Light proof the bedroom and eliminate all light sources –yes, even the small indicator lights on electronic equipment — to maintain melatonin production and maximize your biological rhythm.
- Install a free computer program such as f.lux™ that makes your computer screen look like the room you’re in, all the time. When the sun sets, it makes your computer look like your indoor lights with warmer colors by reducing the blue light. In the morning, it makes the screen brighter like the color of sunshine.
For additional evolutionary perspective concepts and strategies to promote health, see the book Fighting Cancer: A Nontoxic Approach to Treatment.
“I couldn’t belief it. I could not resist the downward push on my arm.”
“I could tell, the person was thinking the hopeless, helpless, powerless thought, she lost all her strength.”
“I finally realized how my thoughts truly could influence my health.”
When participants pair up and one of pair tests the muscle strength of the other by pressing down on the extended arm, 98% of the participants experienced a change in strength depending upon their thoughts. The subjects experienced significantly less strength resisting the downward pressure when they evoked a hopeless, helpless, powerless memory as compared to an empowering memory. In our single blind studies done in groups (total N=200), the testers did not know which memory the subject was evoking. Yet, the testers could discriminate which type of memory the subjects evoked by sensing the difference in subject’s arm strength.
When done in groups, 98% of the participants experience the powerful mind-body relationship. The effect occurs across all ages, gender and cultures. For two percent of participants, their arms felt stronger or there was no change when they thought of a hopeless memory. In these cases, the person either evoked a memory that included anger/resentment resentment (which sometimes makes them stronger) or could not access a memory (there was no change in strength).
This experience is a metaphor for our immune competence and helps participants recognize how thoughts affect health. It is the starting point for teaching cognitive and emotional control.
For detailed description how to do this exercise down load our article: Experience the Mind-Body Connection: A Metaphor for Immune Competence.
For this and other practices as well as suggestions how to pragmatically deal with ruminations, and learn skills to transform thoughts and emotions see the book, Fighting Cancer-A Nontoxic Approach to Treatment.