“Take a deep breath” doesn’t calm anxiety. Try this instead.

"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!


26 Comments on ““Take a deep breath” doesn’t calm anxiety. Try this instead.”

  1. Breathing slow doesn’t help me when my anxiety kicks off I feel sick and hot and panicy and my legs go numb

    Please I need advice . I don’t leave the house and it gets worse at night. I have to sleep with my windows open and fan on every night

    1. Have you tried therapy, medication or an activity that helps you manage your anxiety or gives you relief from it?

  2. Breathing doesn’t help me either, I’ve learned that staring at an object and repeating “keep looking at it” helps me because when I try breathing my brain starts to think something really bad is happening and that’s why I’m trying to slow breathe but when I stare at an object it distracts me completely from my anxiety, give it a go and don’t stop until you feel in control.

  3. Yeah, some say it activates the parasympathetic system but there is more to that. When people breath slowly they learn to relax and find their pace, once they do it they break the anxiety stream and feel safe and that is a surprise because we struggle a lot with anxiety and then we find an easy solution. The thing is not everyone feels comfortable with breathing, I failed at it many times before and just now got it right, but you can still find some practice that envolves holding yourself and finding a slower pace, like Dee said above for example, anything of that nature puts the PS nervous system in action.

  4. i find even when i distract myself i still find myself everu minuite or two taking in a reallu deep breath most the time it feels i cant get it deep enough. but i dont feel anxious atall it begins to make me feel dizzy for a while then i manage to take in deep breaths for about 10 minuites that do satisfy me then it all starts again. its horrible

    1. If you feel starved of air, you’re more than likely breathing too much. Hyperventilating without even knowing it. If you take slower breaths using your stomach instead of your chest and intermittently hold your breath, you’ll be able to get a fulfilling breath in a few minutes. Hyperventilation tightens your upper body muscles including your diaphragm which causes the sensation you’re talking about.

  5. Yes Grace me to. But it’s just Anxiety. I know it feel like you need to take contact deep breaths but that’s just your mind playing tricks on you

  6. I think this is very good advice. Its very true that if you have anxiety and just do the normal deep breathing that it makes you more anxious which can be disasterous. I have just tried this slow deep breathing and i think that its working

  7. When I try to take deep breathes even slow mindful ones where I hold it in and count. I do therapy and meds. All of that. Nothing helps. I do the 4 count-square breathing it doesn’t help at all. I feel like when I focus on my breath it makes me feel more anxious. I start to think I’m not getting enough oxygen. My stomach and throat starts to ache. It’s all in my head. Breathing deeply, meditations none of that helps. In fact it makes me more stressed. I don’t know what to do.

  8. i cannot tell you all what a huge releif it is to know i’m not the only one that has this condition. i’m 69 and i’ve had this type of breathing issue for 40 years and its been hell not having anyone understand what i’m talking about…. and constatnly being told to just breathe deeply by doctors, therapists etc. i even studied psychotherapy for 6 years and not once did this issue come up in our training. I’m super fit and healthy, walking, cycling, lift weights…..i’ve been doing yoga for 25 years and i eat a plant based diet. i’ve done several vipassana retreats (god knows how i got through those?) and i’ve had 14 years of therapy to help me deal with a huge amount of childhood and teenage trauma and the suicide of my first son. i know that trauma is at the root of my breathing and sleep issues (i also have chronic insomnia) and i do wonder if this is something i will have to live with for the rest of my life. some things have helped at times but certainly not every time. interestingly some recent sessions of shamanic breathwork helped me release some very deep trauma that therapy wasnt able to shift but it hasnt changed the breathing or insomnia. the only really helpful thing that i’ve discovered myself is actually breathing slowly, shallowly and mindfully through my nose until i feel like i’m really starving for air …. and then i put one hand on my heart and the other on my belly while telling my innerchild over and over that we’re safe and okay. for some reason that seems to stop the starving for air sensation and i continue to breathe in the same way until i feel myself slowly ease back to normal breathing. i might go through that cycle up to 20 or 30 times a day. does anyone know of any research that have been done of this hellish thing. thankyou all for your input.

  9. Yes, I agree that one deep breath doesn’t help reduce anxiety. The breathing technique is a complex practice of concentrating on inhaling and exhaling. People who write that slow and measured breathing does not help them probably cannot concentrate enough for this technique to work. Of course, it is not a universal remedy for anxiety, but for me, it is the most accessible and effective.

  10. I cried when I read these emails. I have been suffering from anxious breathing for over 30 years and have always felt so alone with it. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t control something so simple as my own breathing and felt I couldn’t confide in anyone because it seemed so ridiculous! I thought I was the only person who could possibly become more anxious when trying to relax! I’m a singer and singing teacher and play the flute, too. Breathing when I play or sing is no problem, quite the reverse. In theory, I know all about how breathing works. However, when focusing on my breath in normal life (ie:not actively singing/playing) I often over breathe, then become anxious as a consequence and the more I try to control it the worse the problem becomes. All the advice I came across about relaxing seemed to centre on controlling breathing and the fact that I have been unable to ‘get it right’has made me feel stupid and more anxious. The more I try, the worse it gets. This has become a lot worse in the last couple of years due to the menopause. There is definitely a hormonal link with anxiety in my case. What has helped most has been to distract myself from breathing completely. The moment I think about it, I feel anxious. Concentrating instead on counting really slowly or relaxing different muscle groups helps. The book Panic by Thomas Bunn was helpful as it focuses on thinking about things which encourage your body to produce hormones such as oxytocin which counter the elevation of stress hormones. Actually just knowing I’m not the only person to go through this is helpful in itself. I wish I’d known this years ago.

  11. I’m turning 30 this year and I have struggled with this for 7 years. There are times I’m good where it doesn’t bother me much and there are times, like tonight; I’m exhausted and restless at 2 am with my chest tight, constantly focusing on my breath. Like others I feel it’s helpful I’m not alone in this and I feel a little less crazy. I do feel the mental health field has failed me because I’ve talked to counselors and doctors with a bewildered expression while I explain my issues with hyper focus breathing to a point it’s an all day problem. Does anyone have any advice with dealing with this at night? I really hope to get some sleep soon. Thanks

  12. I have had the same problem for over 50 years, but it has worsened since I found out that my constant mouth breathing is causing my anxiety. I find that the minute I start thinking about my breath, or become conscious of it, it deteriorates.
    I have had the same problem with counsellors, doctor and therapists who just don’t get it in any way… I also have dreadful insomnia, and find the only way of dealing with it at night, is to get up, have a cup of ginger tea and watch tv for an hour or so, trying not to think about my breath…

    I have been trying to do the Buteyko breathing exercises but so far they have only made me more anxious….

  13. You’re trying to force your body to do the OPPOSITE of what it believes it needs to do. You can’t force your body calm when it believes it’s in eminent danger simply by ignoring it (as non-existent as that threat may be) and breathing slow. That’s like trying to will yourself to stop thinking about pink elephants. You will feel like you’re suffocating because your body is saying it’s time to fight or flee and your lungs aren’t doing what they need to do to accomplish this goal!!! MOVE!!!

    Ignore the well-meaning advice provided on this blog, which was the same advice given to me almost 30 yrs ago by a therapist. It does nothing but exacerbate your anxiety if done in the midst of an attack. Next time you feel that wave of anxiety or panic attack strike, get up and move. Jumping jacks, run, jump rope, walk briskly, pace back and forth, push-ups, whatever you can do for 20 minutes to get your body and lungs moving in alignment with your mind’s belief that a threat is lurking. Your mind thinks you’re in danger and it doesn’t take kindly to you sitting on your thumbs and breathing deeply in response. Speaking from a lot of experience – this works and it’s helped a lot of my friends/acquaintances that I’ve shared this advice with.

    As for a long term solution (because excusing yourself to go for a run or doing cardio at 2am isn’t a suitable solution long-term) spend at least 20 minutes a day to meditate. Focus on your breath – bring your attention back to it when your mind wanders. Do this regularly. You will find it helps reduce the frequency of your panic/anxiety attacks over time. It’s not a one and done solution; you need to stick with it. Just don’t try and do it when you’re already in the middle of an anxiety/panic attack. Lots of love.

  14. @Heather
    Look up “Buteyko pseudoscience” and go try literally anything else. Covid has brought breathing exercises out of the woodwork. I’m skeptical of the Stasis method too but it’s one my immunologist recommended. I hate it so far but it’s free (unless you want to hire a coach). There are YouTube videos by the people who teach it.

  15. Suffering with ongoing problems of panic breathing. It’s awful. Reading the comments of others really helps. I have suffered for over 30 years with anxiety and sadly it presents itself in lots of ways lack of control over my breathing being the worst.

  16. Suffering with ongoing problems of panic breathing. It’s awful. Reading the comments of others really helps. I have suffered for over 30 years with anxiety and sadly it presents itself in lots of ways lack of control over my breathing being the worst.

  17. Deep breathing advice is not really good. Most think one or two deep breaths help.
    I do not think it worth anything.

    If I’m upset, someone tells me to relax . I want to cuss them out.
    They just make me madder.

    I think all this breathing is complete BS anyways. Sure it will help level 8 pain.
    Now that is unbelievably idiotic.
    Level 8.

    I do not want anything to do with mind fullness

    I rather dance. Walk.

  18. Hi I would just like to say that I really enjoyed reading other people’s experiences,I’m a recovering alcoholic and find that now I am dry have been for four years my body and mind are still searching for something to help me relax and stop panicking because the drink for so many years was able to do that for me ,I feel like a boat that has its moorings untied and I’m alone and drifting and this causes me great anxiety.

  19. You know that it could also be a physical issue in the gut and the doctors take the easy way out and just label it as anxiety.. Mine triggers after I eat spicy foods and I’ll feel anxious and have a foggy mind racing thoughts maybe all day.. When I avoid spicy foods I’m good.

  20. I believe that hold my breath, learning to overcome the panic and fear of my body’s primal urge to breath helps to teach me a lesson on how to increase distress tolerance with social anxiety creeps in.

  21. I have to say breathing does not help me neither even on pills. I ve had re concurrent ptsd for years. I have to move to gain my sense of safety or get a dog.
    I cannot live in a home with multiple doors.

    I ve had years of worthless therapy.

    Breathing techniques is the most or worst advice I’ve ever been told to do. It worthless even after a half hour of it.

    Mindfulness is BS for PTSD

    I really do not think the psych world comprehends even after all their studies even. They do not get how to intense it is.

  22. This doesn’t really work for me I’m focused on stretching out my breathing and no matter how long I do it for no matter if it’s for 30 minutes it will continue to just automatically stick no matter what I’m focused on.

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