How Do I Practice Deep Breathing for Anxiety?

Use deep breathing to reduce anxious thoughts.
Deep breathing can help to quell anxiety. Getty / Dorling Kindersley / John Freeman

Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing from the diaphragm rather than the chest, is a way to relax and reduce anxiety of various kinds. Although we are all capable of breathing this way, very few of us do so in our everyday lives.

Importance of Deep Breathing

Deep breathing helps you to avoid the "fight-or-flight" response to stressful situations. In these situations, your body's automatic systems are on high alert and signal your heart to beat faster and breathing rate to increase. By consciously becoming aware of your breathing and regulating its depth and rate, the likelihood of spiraling into a panic or anxiety attack is lowered.

How to Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing

Note: If you live with a medical condition, consult with your doctor prior to beginning any type of relaxation training exercise.

It's best to practice this breathing pattern while you are in a relaxed and safe environment at home. This way, you will be more likely to use this technique when faced with situations that trigger symptoms of social anxiety disorder (SAD) or other issues with anxiety.

Below are the steps to take to practice deep breathing:

  1. Find a quiet place free of distractions. Lie on the floor or recline in a chair, loosen any tight clothing and remove glasses or contacts. Rest your hands in your lap or on the arms of the chair.
  2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your stomach. Inhale, taking a deep breath from your abdomen as you count to three. As you inhale you should feel your stomach rise up. The hand on your chest should not move.
  3. After a short pause, slowly exhale while counting to three. Your stomach should fall back down as you exhale. If you wish, you can say a phrase as you exhale such as "calm."
  4. Continue this pattern of rhythmic breathing for five to ten minutes until you feel relaxed.

In addition to following these instructions, consider listening to a voice recording such as the free MP3 audio file offered by McMaster University, which includes directions on practicing diaphragmatic breathing. Use of an audio recording allows you to fully relax and concentrate on the technique without having to follow written instructions.

Obstacles to Practicing Deep Breathing

If you find that you return to shallow breathing despite practicing deep breathing, it could be that you need more practice in different situations. Try taking a yoga class that encourages deep breathing or sign up for a mindfulness meditation course. Using various strategies that incorporate deep breathing will give you more chances to practice and begin to master the art of breathing from your diaphragm.

Musicians and Deep Breathing

Singers are taught to breathe deeply while singing to improve the sound of their voice and to carry a tune without breaking in the middle. If you are a singer or musician who plays a wind instrument and live with social anxiety, you may benefit from practicing deep breathing. Breathing deeply from your abdomen while performing will help to prevent hyperventilation or the feeling that you can't catch your breath.

Other Relaxation Exercise Techniques to Use With Deep Breathing

  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Guided imagery
  • Autogenic training
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Body scan

If deep breathing alone does not seem to improve your anxiety, consider reading about and practicing these other techniques. You might even find an online or local therapist who can guide you through these types of exercises.

For a helpful coach in your pocket, there is also "Woebot," a chat app that can guide you through relaxation exercises as well as help you challenge negative thought patterns.

A Quick Five-Minute Breath Exercise

Not sure how to implement deep breathing into your daily life? Below is a quick routine you can practice each day to remind you to breathe this way:

  • Set your phone to go off once a day at a convenient time.
  • When the alarm goes off, practice deep breathing for five minutes.
  • After the five minutes are up, see if you feel more relaxed and less anxious.

Over time, it should become more natural to breathe this way all of the time.

A Word From Verywell

Breathing deeply from your diaphragm is a learned skill. Although as babies we all do this instinctively, when you live with anxiety it can feel hard to breathe this way in a moment of panic. If after practicing deep breathing you still feel severe anxiety, consider consulting a mental health professional or medical doctor for assessment and recommendations for treatment.

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.

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."