Loosen Your Waistband—and Other Surprising Solutions to Physical and Emotional Tech Stress

Loosen Your Waistband—and Other Surprising Solutions to Physical and Emotional Tech Stress

erik peper

As a professor at San Francisco State University, Erik Peper, PhD, carries out research on how our modern lifestyle affects our health. But he’s also a healer who shares solutions to the mental and physical pain caused by too much technology or by how we use that technology.

Peper recently coauthored the book Tech Stress: How Technology Is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. It’s filled with guidance for achieving a healthy lifestyle. He explains how our constant connectivity, posture, and work habits result in aches, pains, and mental stress—and he presents some surprising antidotes.

Ergonomics are important, but there’s more to tech stress than just how you sit and move. “Until the twentieth century, the only things that entered our eyes were what was real. When I watch a video and it’s stressful, I automatically react as if it is real inside my body,” says Peper. “When there is something on the screen, we automatically react. We don’t know we do that. We call those traps, and because of them, we are always activated.” You’ll want to share this book with every desk jockey and news junkie you know.

  1. tech stress book
    Erik Peper, Richard Harvey, and Nancy Faass tech stress Bookshop, $18

A Q&A with Erik Peper, PhD

Why are people, especially heavy technology users, stiff and tense and uncomfortable? What are we doing wrong?

One, people are unaware of how much we react to stimuli around us. When there is something on the screen, we automatically react. We don’t know we do that. When you’re sitting in a plane and somebody next to you opens up their computer, your eyes pop over. We call those traps, and because of them, we are always activated.

Two, we are unaware of our low-level tension. One major contribution to the field that we made was monitoring people, their physiology. Everybody says, “I’m relaxed.” Yet when you monitor them, they have shoulder tension and they’re unaware of it. You can train people not to hold muscle tension. When we used typewriters, the task intrinsically had alternation of movements so the muscles would contract then relax. Now we sit frozen at the computer.

Three, we tend to collapse our bodies. We don’t know we do that. It compresses our abdomen and causes us to breathe shallowly in our chest. This affects our emotions, it affects our moods, and we have more access to hopeless thoughts.

And the fourth component I would say is plain ergonomics, and that’s a real challenge now. You probably work on a laptop, and a laptop is always a compromise. Solutions can be found, but they’re all individual.

You’ve said sitting for long periods of time without regular contraction and relaxation of muscles affects more than muscle tension. Can you explain?

From an evolutionary perspective, we are designed to alternate sitting, walking, sitting, activities, et cetera. Now we only sit, and it compromises our health because we don’t activate our second heart. What do I mean by second heart? Your leg muscles. Your leg muscles need to be activated episodically to circulate the lymph and venous blood. Standing all the time—as cashiers do, for example—causes legs to swell a bit. The reason is that when you’re sitting, the muscles are not activated. When the muscles tighten episodically, they squeeze the veins, and the veins have one-way valves, so this helps bring the blood back to the heart. It’s similar for the lymph. When you sit slouched, you’re compressing your abdomen without knowing it. That means when you breathe, there’s no abdominal movement. It’s all in the chest. And that means the lymph that flows through the lymphatic vessels in the abdomen is compromised.

Can you talk about the contribution of news and entertainment media to tech stress?

What most people don’t realize is that whatever we see is interpreted by the body as real. Until the twentieth century, the only things that entered our eyes were what was real. So we have no mechanism to say: This is not real. When I watch a video and it’s stressful, I automatically react as if it is real inside my body. Everybody’s had that experience. You watch a horror movie, and you find it more difficult to go to sleep afterward. You walk outside and you think, I see the world as more dangerous. When I watch news about horrible murders, I don’t recognize that there are more than 330 million people in America who went to sleep happily.

How do you suggest we counteract all this?

Step one, be aware that when we feel it, it’s almost too late. When we work at the computer, our shoulders go up a little bit, but we don’t realize that they’re up, and only by the end of the day do we feel the fatigue. So the key is to assume that you’re unaware.

Step two, interrupt the pattern by changing your body-movement habits. I recommend getting up and wiggling and moving every twenty minutes or so. Install a stretch break program. There’s a free program called Stretch Break. Feel the difference right now. Just get up for a moment, stand up, and stretch and skip in place and bring your arms up to the ceiling. Look at the ceiling; dance in place. If you do this for even a moment, even if people think you’re silly, your energy will go up. We have demonstrated that many times in many studies. [Editor’s note: Here are some other apps you might want to try out.]

Three, start learning to breathe slowly and deeply into the belly. When you do that and breathe about six times a minute, your heart rate will tend to slow down.

Four, we have a choice as to what we focus our brain on. I can focus on hopeless, helpless, powerless options or on more-positive options. When you are in a collapsed position, which most of us are when we are sitting on the couch and watching television, we become like the letter C. That is a body posture of defense or powerlessness. That allows us to have much quicker access to our hopeless thoughts. If on the other hand, you arch up and look up, you have easier access to positive memories.

We have studied this, and it’s fun to see for yourself. Sit slouched, think only of hopeless, helpless memories for about thirty seconds, then evoke only empowering memories. Then shift to an upright position, looking up. Repeat thinking only hopeless thoughts, and then empowering ones. When you’re in the slouched position it’s much easier to access hopeless thoughts. In our neurological studies, we have demonstrated that when you’re slouched, your brain has to work harder to access positive thoughts.

We did a study with the posture guru Esther Gokhale, monitoring the body position she teaches. It turns out that sitting correctly, in a way that minimizes disc compression—without slouching or overarching—requires little work by the back muscles [Editor’s note: You can read more about Gokhale in this goop article.]

You’ve said that when stresses and strains are more emotional in nature (like anger, sadness, or fear), we should move our body. And when the stressors are more physical in nature (like pain or discomfort), we should try to quiet our mind, for example with meditation. Why?

When I get angry or frustrated, my body is highly activated. A hard physical workout will also work out the emotions and complete the alarm reaction. And then you’re quiet. I learned this from a Tibetan practice. I often tell my students that if they have something difficult to say to me and I would get upset, they should have me go running first. And then I come back, and it’s remarkable how difficult it is to get me roused up. I’m more rational because I have completed the alarm reaction.

For many people, when we have physical pain, we react with anxiety and fear and our brain starts thinking of all the negative scenarios. Then we can’t let go of those. When I lie in bed, I may not have too much pain, but I already anticipate having pain, and that anticipation of having the experience can create the experience. If I can learn to quiet that rumination, then I don’t escalate internally. If you have pain, it’s very hard to do mindfulness training because the pain pops right back in. So my recommendation would be to combine that with chanting or humming or say, “Om.” Now my brain is occupied hearing this sound, and I can breathe slowly and bring my body back to balance. In order for me to regenerate, I need to get quiet because if I stay activated, healing slows down.

Can you give us a few ergonomic tips from your book for people who are at their computer a lot?

Take many breaks.

When you sit at a chair, loosen your belt. Let your waist get bigger; give it space. Designer-jeans syndrome forces us to breathe higher. Breathe slower and lower in the abdomen.

Check your posture. We don’t know that we collapse until it’s too late, our head thrust forward to the screen. We use a device called an Upright GO, which vibrates when you’re slouching. It’s a reminder: Sit up!

At home, especially now when you’re using laptops, fix the ergonomics. Sit so that your feet are on the floor, and adjust the keyboard so that your forearms are parallel to the floor as you are typing without raising your shoulders. Then adjust the height of screen so that the top of the screen is at the same level as your eyebrows so you can look at the screen without looking down. If you are using a laptop, get a separate keyboard so that you can raise the laptop screen, or an extra monitor so that you can use the laptop keyboard.

Sometimes key commands or other shortcuts are better than using the mouse if they can reduce repetitive stress from controlling the mouse. So often when using the mouse, we tighten our shoulders and even hold our breath—all without awareness. For example, dragging the mouse to select text requires prolonged contraction of the same muscles in the hand each time. Instead, after clicking at the beginning of the text to be copied, hold down the shift key and click at the end of the text. Use command C to copy and command V to paste.

Turn off digital devices at least half an hour before going to sleep. When you’re at family gatherings, put the cell phone away, because when it is present, you automatically get distracted. You look. And the person interrupted feels diminished. That’s what our research shows. The students we ask feel this, but they all do it still.

Do you have any tips for tired eyes?

We forget how much our eyes are fatigued looking at screens. When we look at the screen, we blink much less and get dry eyes. The muscles around the lens contract. To relax, pause for a moment and look outside at a distance. Do this many times and purposely blink.

Erik Peper, PhD, is a professor in the Institute for Holistic Health Studies at San Francisco State University. His most recent book—coauthored with Richard Harvey, PhD, and Nancy Faass, MSW, MPH—is Tech Stress: How Technology Is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Peper has a PhD in psychology from Union Graduate School and a BA from Harvard University. He is president of the Biofeedback Foundation of Europe and a past president of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Peper has carried out extensive research on the psychophysiology of healing, holistic health, and biofeedback and has published numerous scientific articles on these subjects. He also provides consultations for individuals and organizations.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.

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