Your inbox may be causing you more stress than you realize.

According to Linda Stone, a former Microsoft researcher and tech executive, some 80% of people either hold their breath or breathe shallowly as they work through their email. She uses the term email apnea to describe this.

That disruption in your breathing is a pretty big deal. Holding your breath alters the level of oxygen in your system, triggering that familiar fight-or-flight response and contributing to stress-related diseases. It’s also not, as you might imagine, the most productive or creative state to be in.

“It isn’t email that is making us crazy. It’s how we’re doing email that is making us crazy,” says Stone. “If we were all driving with no speed limits and no stop signs, there would be chaos. That’s how I think about how many of us are doing email.”

How can you avoid email madness, and the fight-or-flight state it produces? Stone has six tips.

Exhale. One of the easiest ways to get out of fight-or-flight? Exhale.

Re-think your day. The more Stone enjoys what she’s doing, she says, the more relaxed she is and the better her thinking flows. Often, she just needs to take something off her to-do list to get into a better frame of mind.

Ask yourself questions such as, “How do I feel? Have I exhaled lately?” Says Stone, "If you’re not sure how you feel, it’s time to get up and walk away from the computer--and your email!"

Set stop signs. You can set stop signs on your own personal information highway by setting expectations and sticking to them. If you only answer email a few times a day, eventually, people will stop expecting you to be available at a moment’s notice. But only if you stick to your guns. Similarly, if you’re going on vacation, you can let correspondents know (nicely) that you’ll be deleting any emails received during that time (Journalist Lauren Young calls this email bankruptcy.)  

Set speed limits. Speed limits refer to “how” we’re doing email. Here, the driver has discretion. If you’re checking your email the minute you wake up, bringing your smartphone into the bathroom, and glancing at your phone at every stop light, you need to give yourself a minute to breathe--literally.

Try a heart rate variability monitor. Stone often clips one of these to her ear to become more conscious of the relationship between her mind and body. Multicolored lights give the wearer visual cues about the state of his or her nervous system.

Stone reminds us that in the 1800s, attention was defined not only as what we chose to focus on, but also as what we chose to exclude. Since then, we seem to have forgotten the part about what to exclude. “Are we being tyrannical with ourselves or are we being reasonable?” Stone asks. “And are we breathing?”

Like this post? Sign up for the free One Thing New email newsletter.