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02/10/2019 2:30 PM AEST

Why Telling Someone With Anxiety To 'Just Breathe' Isn't Always Helpful

Therapists explain how the well-meaning phrase can make some situations worse and share what to do instead.

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If you’ve ever been to therapy or live with anxiety or stress, you probably understand the importance of mindful breathing. Deep breathing can slow and help control your heart rate as well as quiet your mind.

But just because breathing exercises can help some, that doesn’t mean it’s the go-to strategy for everyone in every anxious moment. Here, therapists who frequently see patients for anxiety explain why casually telling someone to “take a deep breath” sometimes isn’t a solution or even useful:

It can come off as condescending or dismissive

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When you’re deep in a spiral of anxious thoughts, hearing someone with even the best of intentions tell you to breathe can feel like they’re belittling your experience. Melissa Fisher Goldman, a California-based therapist, said that people often have a knee-jerk reaction to someone else’s anxiety and reflexively want to stop it out of an assumption that they’re helping.

“Sometimes when somebody is anxious it’s not the right moment to say, ‘Take a deep breath,’” Goldman said. “You’re implying their feeling is not OK and that it’s time to calm down, like there’s some easy fix. But sometimes we’re not ready or we don’t even want to be ‘out’ of whatever emotion we’re having.”

This is especially important with stigmatised emotions like anxiety, she noted, because it can create shame around a valid feeling. Plus, being rushed to suppress an emotion can have unintended consequences.

“We want to make sure that we process and honour the feeling that we’re having. When we push a feeling down, it tends to come back bigger later,” Goldman said.

You might actually be making their anxious thoughts worse 

There’s a cyclical nature to anxiety, and negative thoughts often feed off each other, according to New York-based therapist Racquel Jones. “So, you’re saying, ‘Take a deep breath and you’ll be all right.’ But suppose the person does that and they’re not all right, then what?” Jones said.

“The thing with anxiety is if you feel like what you tried didn’t work out, then that makes you think, ‘Well, nothing works out, and everything goes bad,’ and you go down a rabbit hole with negative thinking,” Jones added.

Deep breaths might not be the best breathing technique for that person

There are many different breathing exercises to calm your body and mind, because, as Goldman explained, “not all of them resonate with everybody.” So while some might benefit from deep, even breaths, others might not.

Goldman added that certain people may prefer the “counting breath,” where you slowly inhale on a count of three, hold it for one, and exhale for five. Others, she said, may benefit from breaths where you inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, or vice versa. Goldman also noted that you may be better off practicing these techniques for the first time with a therapist. By telling someone to take a deep breath, you may be advocating a technique that may not work for them.

They might be in a situation where deep breathing just isn’t helpful

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Jones brought up a practical case where the “just breathe” advice may not be useful: when someone has anxiety about driving or any other activity that requires their full attention due to safety concerns.

Goldman pointed out that controlled breathing takes a lot of focus. The idea is to think about just your breathing patterns so you can quiet your mind and distract from the anxiety. But if your anxiety is provoked by driving, you can’t exactly commit to grounding exercises while you’re behind the wheel. If you’re focused on counting your breaths, it’s possible you might miss a traffic light or become distracted on the road.

Jones added that you’d probably have to be in a position to pull your car over to practice breathing exercises: “Because what can you do? You’re already on the road. So you need to get yourself ready before you even get into that car.”

You might not be the right person to deliver the message 

Often I think what’s happening when somebody tells their friends ‘just breathe’ is that they’re starting to feel their friend’s anxiety,” Goldman said. And if you’re also in an anxious or agitated state, you may not be able to help someone else calm themselves either.

“If somebody is going to suggest breathing, they need to be able to do it themselves,” Goldman continued. Your relationship to the person you’re attempting to help matters too, she added. Not only does someone need to be ready to accept intervention, they have to trust the person helping them as well.

What to do when a loved one is feeling extremely anxious

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This all isn’t to say breathing exercises aren’t fundamentally important tools when it comes to anxiety. Both Goldman and Jones were quick to say they use it in their practice, and Goldman added that if someone is truly having a panic attack, hyperventilating and having trouble getting oxygen, helping them to breathe is crucial.

But if telling someone to take a deep breath is falling short, there’s plenty of support you can offer instead. Goldman suggested simply telling someone in an anxious moment that you’re there for them and with them, or asking them if they’d like to try breathing together, rather than demanding it. Jones said that journaling can also be an effective way to deal with anxiety.

“I also do grounding exercises,” Jones added. “You close your eyes, put your palms on your knees, and try to do some meditation or visualization where you ask yourself to think about somewhere where you’re at peace.”

Ultimately, if you can offer support without telling someone what they should do, you’ll be a much bigger help to someone in an anxious moment.