"Take a deep breath."
If you struggle with anxiety, you've heard that advice. But when you actually took that deep breath, you probably felt just as anxious as you did before. That's because it's terrible advice.
I'll explain the two main reasons why taking a deep breath doesn't work -- and then I'll explain a simple breathing technique that does work. Here we go!
1) Going deep isn't enough
When you're anxious and you try to take a deep breath, it's natural to suck in the breath as quickly as you can. The breath is deep, sure, but it doesn't relax you. In fact, a series of fast, deep breaths will just make you more anxious (because now you're hyperventilating!)
What you need is a breath that is slow and deep. Breathing slowly -- taking several seconds each time you inhale or exhale - calms down your system. It signals to your body that you don't need to be frantic, that you are safe enough to slow down.
It also gives you something to focus on. Instead of filling your mind with anxious thoughts, you can focus on slowing down your breathing, and trying to stretch out each breath.
Breathing slowly can be difficult when you feel anxious. It might feel like you can't catch your breath if you don't breathe as quickly as possible. An easy trick I like to use is to try to breathe just a bit slower each time. I'll try to make each breath last just a half second longer than the one before it, until my breathing has become slow and calm. Once I reach a nice slow rhythm, I'll stay there until my anxiety has subsided.
2) A single breath won't help you
When you feel anxious, your body is in "fight or flight" mode. It's an automatic response that your body uses to keep you alive in dangerous situations.
Of course, a social interaction isn't actually dangerous -- but your body doesn't know that. Your body thinks you are in danger, so it prepares you to run or fight. All of the physical signs of anxiety (pounding heart, shortness of breath, queasy stomach) are side effects of your body ramping you up to survive the danger.
In order to counteract the sensation of anxiety, you have to reverse this effect. Instead of ramping your body up, you have to calm your body down.
That's where breathing comes in. Slow breathing tells your body "We're safe now." It puts the brakes on your fight-or-flight system.
But a single breath won't calm you down, just as tapping the brakes once won't stop a speeding car. You need a sustained effort.
So give yourself the time that you need to calm down. Instead of taking one deep breath, try spending one full minute of slow breathing. Be patient with yourself, and don't rush.
Breathe, Slow And Deep
Let's put it all together.
"Take a deep breath" doesn't work because a single fast breath doesn't help you. You need many slow breaths to calm down.
So instead of telling yourself "Take a deep breath", tell yourself "Breathe, slow and deep." Focus on slowing your breathing down, making each breath last just a half second longer than the one before it. Take your attention away from the anxious thoughts flitting around in your head, and focus your attention instead on your breath.
This will tell your body that the danger is past, and your body will start to relax. Your fight or flight system will wind down, your heartbeat will go back to normal, and your anxiety will start to fade.
Your anxiety will not disappear completely, even after you've mastered this technique. But it will help you feel more in control during stressful situations. You'll feel less overwhelmed by anxiety, and more able to relax and be yourself. You'll also have a bit of "breathing room" (pun intended) to practice other techniques for reducing anxiety.
This does take a bit of practice, so I recommend trying out out when you feel calm and safe. You might take a few minutes right now to breathe slow and deep, or practice it while falling asleep at night. Once you feel confident in your breathing techniques, try it out during your next social outing, and see the difference it makes. Good luck!