Deep Breathing for Nicotine Withdrawal

Young businessman doing deep breathing exercise at his desk
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Nicotine withdrawal can be a challenging process, with physical and emotional symptoms on top of cravings for cigarettes. Deep breathing is an invaluable tool that can help you shift into a positive emotional state when nicotine withdrawal makes you feel on edge.

You might hear deep breathing referred to as diaphragmatic breathing because you engage your diaphragm, a muscle at the base of your lungs. It tightens when you take a deep breath, allowing the lungs to expand.

Getting fresh oxygen into the lungs, especially as your lungs recover from smoking cigarettes, is a great way to boost your physical and mental health. Deep breathing is a great way to remind yourself there are ways to relax and soothe yourself after you quit smoking.

Benefits of Deep Breathing

Deep breathing means taking breaths that expand your stomach, as opposed to "chest breathing" which is when your breath stays more shallow and only in your chest. When you breathe into your chest, your lungs don't get as much oxygenated air as they do with a deep breath or a belly breath.

When you only breathe into your chest, you might feel short of breath and even anxious.

Deep breathing into the abdomen increases oxygen to the lungs and the entire body.

There are both physical and mental benefits of deep breathing which include:

  • Curbing distracting thoughts
  • Decreasing anxiety and stress
  • Improving concentration
  • Promoting relaxation
  • Slowing your heart rate
  • Stabilizing your blood pressure

For People Who Quit Smoking

Deep breathing exercises can benefit anyone but they may have added benefits for people who have quit smoking and are navigating the challenges of nicotine withdrawal.

  • Lower stress levels: Deep breathing slows your nervous system and lowers your stress levels, which can improve your mood and give you an energy boost—benefits that are especially important during nicotine withdrawal when you're more prone to depressed moods and fatigue.
  • Reduce cravings: In one study, "controlled deep breathing" every 30 minutes reduced smoking withdrawal symptoms such as cigarette cravings and irritability in participants who were dependent on nicotine compared to participants who didn’t perform deep breathing exercises.
  • Improve lung function: Deep breathing can improve the efficiency of your lungs. For instance, pulmonary rehabilitation employs deep breathing exercises to strengthen the diaphragm—it's a common treatment type for people with smoking-related illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Be more active: Improving lung function with deep breathing can make physical exertion feel easier. Physical exercise can also help to relieve the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

If it's difficult for you to take deep breaths after quitting smoking or due to another lung condition, you can still practice deep breathing. Take as much of an inhale as you feel comfortable taking, and do the same with the exhale. If you find that deep breathing feels difficult or painful, be sure to contact your doctor.

How to Perform Deep Breathing

You can perform a deep breathing exercise either sitting down in a chair or lying down on your bed (or any flat, comfortable surface). The basic steps of deep breathing are:

  1. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly.
  2. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose. Feel the hand on your belly rise.
  3. Breath out slowly through your mouth or nose—whichever is more comfortable—and feel the hand on your belly lower to its original position. Make sure your lungs are completely emptied.

The exhale should take almost twice the time as the inhale.

Pursed Lip Breathing

There are many styles of deep breathing exercises you can try. One of them is pursed lip breathing. Perform the basic steps of deep breathing, only when you exhale, purse your lips as if you were going to blow up a balloon.

Again, your exhale should take longer than your inhale. Pursing your lips helps to limit the amount of air you release, slowing down your breath.

Breath Focus

Breath focus is a style of breathwork that is often used during yoga and meditation. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. First, notice your breath as it is without changing it. Then, start to deepen your breath. Try to focus on your breath and let your thoughts come and go without fixating on any particular one.

You can also incorporate visualization. Maybe you imagine you're on a serene, peaceful beach. Be as descriptive as possible: What do you hear? What do you smell? How does it feel? Or, try using a mantra. A positive mantra could be "This is my time to relax," or "I have no worries." It can be whatever helps you to relax and be in the moment.

While fast breathing has been linked with anxiety and stress, practices like breath focus help to slow down the body and mind, promoting relaxation, well-being, and control over emotions.

Creating a Breathing Routine

Try practicing a breathing exercise of your choice every day for 5 to 10 minutes. You can even do it more often throughout the day whenever you feel an uncomfortable symptom of withdrawal. For instance, deep breathing can be a healthy coping mechanism you use whenever you have a cigarette craving.

It's likely that by the end of your deep breathing session, or within several minutes, you'll notice that your craving is less intense than when you began.

You may also feel the immediate effects of deep breathing, especially if you're new to practicing it. You might feel less tension in your body, your shoulders might drop, and your jaw might unclench. Notice how you feel before you do the breathing exercise and how you feel after.

You might keep a journal or make a mental note of the benefits you receive from each practice.

Don't worry if you don't feel anything right away. You might start to notice the benefits slowly over time, which is why keeping track of your feelings could help you notice any changes.

Staying Smoke-Free

Deep breathing is a great way to relieve some of the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. It can also be helpful to incorporate a few different methods of staying smoke-free. These might include:

  • Joining a support group: You can hold yourself accountable with regular meetings and relieve stress by sharing with others who have quit or who are trying to quit smoking.
  • Counseling: Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners offer counseling to help you stay smoke-free.
  • Dialing a quit-line: Quit-lines are available in all 50 states. You can receive free coaching for quitting smoking over the phone.
  • Downloading a quit smoking app: Some quit smoking apps message positive affirmations to keep you motivated on your quit smoking journey.

If you are struggling to stay smoke-free, your doctor might recommend medication to quit smoking such as Zyban (bupropion) or Chantix (varenicline). They may also recommend nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), which administers small doses of nicotine without the other toxins in cigarettes to help you slowly wean yourself from nicotine. NRT comes in lozenges, patches, gum, and more. It may help ease the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

If you haven't already, you might also share your goal of staying smoke-free with family and friends. Having the people around you support your new lifestyle can make a huge difference in smoking cessation and preventing relapse.

A Word From Verywell

The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can be uncomfortable, but practicing deep breathing on a regular basis can help relieve some of this discomfort. If you haven't felt the benefits of deep breathing before, try to keep an open mind. Before long, you may notice changes in your body and mind that surprise you.

If you are still struggling to stay smoke-free after you quit cigarettes, remember that you have other resources available. You can start by talking to your doctor about methods of quitting to find the best ways that work for you.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Harvard Health Publishing. Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response.

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  4. McClernon FJ, Westman EC, Rose JE. The effects of controlled deep breathing on smoking withdrawal symptoms in dependent smokers. Addictive Behaviors. 2004;29(4):765-772. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2004.02.005

  5. American Lung Association. Breathing exercises.

  6. Klinsophon T, Thaveeratitham P, Sitthipornvorakul E, Janwantanakul P. Effect of exercise type on smoking cessation: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trialsBMC Res Notes. 2017;10(1):442. doi:10.1186/s13104-017-2762-y

  7. Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, et al. How breath-control can change your life: A systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathingFront Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:353. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to quit smoking.

By Terry Martin
Terry Martin quit smoking after 26 years and is now an advocate for those seeking freedom from nicotine addiction.