Maintain energy and health at work

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

  1. Interrupt your computer work every few minutes to wiggle and move
  2. Breathe diaphragmatically
  3. Get up and do large movements (stretch or walk) for a few minutes.
  4. 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


Muscle biofeedback makes the invisible visible

“I feel much more relaxed and realize now how unaware I was of the unnecessary tension I’ve been holding”  is a common response after muscle biofeedback training. Many people experience  exhaustion, stiffness, tightness, neck, shoulder and back pain while working long hours at the computer or while exercising.  As we get older, we assume that discomforts are the result of aging. You just have to accept it and live with it–grin and bear it–or you need to be more careful while doing your job or performing your hobby.  The discomfort in many cases is the result of misuse of your body.  Observes what happens when you perform the following experiential practice Threading the needle.

Perform this task so that an observer would think it was real and would not know that you are only simulating threading a needle.

Imagine that you are threading a needle — really imagine it by picturing it in your mind and acting it out. Hold the needle between your left thumb and index finger. Hold the thread between the thumb and index finger of your right hand. Bring the tip of the thread to your mouth and put it between your lips to moisten it and make it into a sharp point. Then attempt to thread the needle, which has a very small eye. The thread is almost as thick as the eye of the needle.

As you are concentrating on threading this imaginary needle, observed what happened? While acting out the imagery, did you raise or tighten your shoulders, stiffen your trunk, clench your teeth, hold your breath or stare at the thread and needle without blinking?

Most people are surprised that they have tightened their shoulders and braced their trunk while threading the needle.  Awareness only occurred after their attention was directed to the covert muscle bracing patterns.

In many cases muscles are tense even though the person senses and feels that they are relaxed.  This lack of awareness can be resolved with muscle biofeedback–it makes invisible visible.  Muscle biofeedback (electromyographic feedback) is used to monitor the muscle activity, teach the person awareness of the previously unperceived muscle tension and  learn relax and control it. For more information of the use of muscle biofeedback to   improve health and performance at work or in the gym, see the published chapter, I thought I was relaxed: The use of SEMG biofeedback for training awareness and control, by Richard Harvey and Erik Peper. It was published in W. A. Edmonds, & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.). (2012), Case studies in applied psychophysiology: Neurofeedback and biofeedback treatments for advances in human performance. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 144-159.