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Why Does Deep Breathing Make Me More Stressed?

Take a deep breath in through your nose. Fill your lungs completely. Now slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat. For most people, engaging in some deep breathing like this is relaxing, calming and helps relieve stress. However, some find that focusing on and controlling their breath actually makes them feel more anxious and stressed. This surprising phenomenon is known as the paradox of deep breathing.

On its surface, deliberate deep breathing seems like it should reduce stress levels. And indeed, research has shown controlled diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system – the part of the nervous system responsible for resting and digestion that is dominant when we are relaxed. Deep breathing also reduces levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones in the bloodstream.

Additionally, numerous studies demonstrate that practices focused on breath awareness and regulation, like yoga, Tai Chi and meditation, decrease anxiety and negative mood states. So why is it that some individuals feel their anxiety spike when they intentionally take long, deep breaths? There are a few potential reasons behind this paradoxical response.

Hyperawareness of Physical Sensations

For those more prone to anxiety, suddenly focusing a great deal of attention on breathing and physical sensations that normally happen subconsciously in the background can be stress-inducing. This hyper-self-awareness and monitoring of breaths, heart rate or chest tightness tends to increase apprehension. It also often leads to controlling behaviors, like trying to manipulate the duration of inhales and exhales. Attempting to strictly manage a normally automatic bodily process can enhance anxiety.

Fear of Improper Breathing

Some people worry they are doing deep breathing “incorrectly” and try very hard to breathe deeply enough to reduce anxiety. Ironically, this effort and striving often produces muscle tension and arousal – the opposite of relaxation. The hallmark of diaphragmatic breathing is letting the breath flow smoothly without straining. Pushing too hard for a “perfect” breath creates stress. Perfectionism and performance anxiety around breathing sabotage its stress-relieving effects.

Dwelling on Distressing Thoughts

Another reason mindful breathing can feel unpleasant is it may provide space for ruminating on upsetting issues. By removing external distractions and focusing inward, deep breathing allows cognitive resources to zero in on worrying. Thoughts that may normally be in the background can now dominate one’s attention. As brooding and circular thinking gain traction, feelings of apprehension mount.

Panic or Trauma Triggers

In some cases deep breathing unintentionally triggers feelings of panic or trauma. For example, forcibly filling lungs may resemble gasping for air in a distressing situation previously experienced. Alternatively, extended exhales resemble hyperventilating, which can also induce panic and flashbacks. Tuning into physical sensations through breathing may also surface traumatic memories that manifest as anxiety in the body.

Where should you go from here if focusing on your breath makes you feel tense and worried? First, know that this response is not entirely uncommon – you are not alone or doing anything inherently wrong. Next, consider dialing back how much you are actively trying to control inhales and exhales. Allow breathing to flow more naturally without conscious effort or judgment.

Additionally, engage in deep breathing while simultaneously listening to calming music or warm beverages – something that forces your mind to divide its attention. If troubling thoughts predominate, actively redirect your mind to something pleasant, even while continuing slow inhales and exhales. Or, give mindful breathing a break and switch to exercise, stretching or other relaxation methods like visualization, self-massage or yoga nidra. Finally, consider talking to a professional counselor who can help address panic/trauma triggers or thought patterns that may be interfering with using breathing to reduce stress.

The next time you feel tense, do give mindful deep breathing a try for stress-relief. But if you find yourself getting more worked up, use coping strategies like distraction, thought redirection, dividing attention or avoiding controlling behaviors around breathing. Conclude the practice by gently shifting to another calming activity without self-judgment. Experiment to find what makes breath focus relaxing vs what amplifies distress so you can respond adaptively. With some patience and self-compassion, the paradox will resolve, and slow deep breaths will start easing your anxiety.