Very often, when it comes to language, words get assigned positive or negative meanings. For example, if you hear the word “strain”, there’s typically an implication of something negative; conversely, the word “enthusiasm” is virtually never considered in a negative way – it’s just how we understand the word. Today’s word, apnea, is one of those odd words: though we usually think of it in a negative way, related to one singular condition, it may come as a surprise to learn that, via other usages, the word can actually be positive and beneficial.
First, let’s start by looking at the word from a neutral perspective. Pathologically, apnea just means the suspension of breathing or, technically speaking, the cessation of respiration. Constructed from Modern Latin, the term comes from the Greek apnoia, meaning ‘absence of respiration’, which itself can be broken down into the prefix a-, meaning ‘without’, and the root word pnein, meaning ‘to breathe’. The first use of this term in written English was in the form of a definition in Thomas Blount’s 1707 Glossographia Anglicana Nova, which stated the term as: “Apnea, want of breath; an entire suppression of breathing.”
Though we may not consider it to be, apnea is actually fairly common. While we are all familiar with it being induced by choking on something, through drug or anaesthesia use, or because of trauma or disease, it may come as a surprise to discover that we can do it voluntarily, by attempting to hold our breath, or involuntarily, in periods of extreme emotion, such as when we’re laughing or crying.
Still, for many of us, the typically negative aspect of this term is from its common usage in sleep apnea. Linked to a myriad of other health issues, sleep apnea involves long pauses in breathing or shallow breathing when asleep. This leads to increased levels of CO2 in the blood, which causes the brain to wake the body up in order to begin normal breathing, meaning less restful sleep. While the lack of sleep itself isn’t fatal, the 1-6% of the population who suffer from sleep apnea have also been shown to have an increased risk of cardiovascular issues, stroke, and diabetes.
Apnea, though, is far from being all bad: it can also be used as an understanding of training the body during periods when breathing isn’t possible. Looking at traditional (pre-scuba) fishing, traditional spearfishing, snorkelling, pearl diving, and even synchronised swimming, all of these activities involve some form of respiratory control while being underwater. Going beyond the normal/traditional application of apnea, there are also underwater sports (football, rugby, and even hockey), target shooting, and even- using the term at its basest application- competitive underwater apnea, which is like an enhanced version of kids seeing who can hold their breath the longest in a pool.
Perhaps the most positive use of the term can be found in its application to surfing. Due to the nature of the surf-zone, where, with barely a few seconds of preparation at the most, the tremendous force of water potentially pushing down on you or spinning you around after a wipeout can easily cause panic, the ability to control breathing can in extreme cases be the difference between keeping your cool and blacking out, which could be fatal. Through the application of meditative principles and controlled breathing techniques, surfers are dealing with the issue from 2 fronts: a relaxed, meditative state will allow the body to consume less oxygen, and the use of controlled apnea will strengthen lung capacity and allow for efficient oxygen usage.
So, like many of our words, looking beyond the obvious connotation we give them, they can be good or bad, it all depends on how we use them.