Wim Hof Breathing – is it the right thing for YOU?
So what is it?
Wim Hof breathing is popular at the moment – but there’s a problem with that.
People assume that all breathwork is like Wim Hof breathing. In fact, this is just one end of the breathwork spectrum.
If Wim Hof breathing is the only breathwork you’ve tried, you could be missing out on other benefits of breath training. Wim Hof’s method is an interesting way of inteacting with your fight/flight response but might not be the best breathwork for you, depending on the state of your nervous system.
Understanding How Wim Hof Breathing Works – and why!
Wim Hof breathing, or Tummo, is a pattern of rapid inhales (superventilation) followed by extended breath holds. These breath patterns generate a great deal of heat in the body.
These patterns of breathing can offer a reset to the autonomic nervous system. Tummo or Wim Hof breathing can help us tolerate cold and clear our minds – or may even have some applications with athletes.
It can also help us improve our tolerance of carbon dioxide which has massive benefits to mental & physical health and stress resilience.
This level interfacing with the nervous system and the mind-body connection is great to try. HOWEVER, if you are at all prone to panic or anxiety, you may accidentally be making that worse for yourself.
Fight or Flight: Wim Hof Breathing and the Nervous System
Wim Hof breathing is a very activating form of breathwork – it stimulates the ‘fight or flight’ response of your autonomic nervous system. It “hypes you up” by telling your brain to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline – which sounds cool but needs to be used with skill and awareness of how this affects you both in the moment and afterward.
If you’re already anxious, prone to overthinking, intrusive thoughts or have difficulty relaxing and letting go, WHB could be the opposite of what you need!
To put it simply: Wim Hof Breathing is about temporarily increasing stress in the body, while many of us need to find ways to reduce it.
When Wim Hof Breathing Misses the Mark
Individuals who are dealing with panic disorder or generalised anxiety may find that WHB makes their anxiety more intense. Even healthy people who have no history of disorders could feel more on-edge and tense, without understanding why – all while doing it to themselves.
It’s important to learn how to read the state of you autonomic nervous system (how activated or deactivated you are) to determine whether your breathwork practice is serving you. You have to make sure that any breathing practice – Tummo or otherwise – helps you understand yourself better in the current moment.
Fortunately breathwork offers us a huge array of techniques. There are powerful anti-anxiety and pro-focus breathing practices that help reduce stress, tone down the ‘fight or flight’ response, and improve mental and physical wellbeing.
3 Types of Breathwork: Up, Down, and Regulatory
Breathwork can be used in different ways:
- To upregulate your nervous system: increase your energy, improve mood and awareness, get you ready for a performance or athletic event (try Alternate Nostril Breathing or Step Up Breathing).
- To ‘find’ and regulate your current state: finding, grounding, and maintaining state either over time or in the face of a potential outside influence (stressor or depressant, e.g.).
- To downregulate your nervous system: create calm, slow your breathing, think more clearly and restore your resting physiological functions (e.g. associated with recovery and growth – try Bottomless Box Breath)
For each of these goals, there are dedicated breathwork and lifestyle practices. They represent the different directions that you can actively shift your body and mind towards.
Putting breathwork to work for you
But how do I know which one I need?
One of the major benefits of breathwork is learning to read your current state – and then knowing how to change it to suit your needs and health.
This is the body’s feedback about how you really are – the body is always in the now and the body cannot lie. We can develop our awareness of the messages with a quick walk-through of the body from head to toe.
If you are in an activated state you might notice:
- Tension in your back, shoulders, or neck?
- Restlessness / lightness in your limbs
- Tension in your facial muscles
- Bloating/slowing in your digestive system
- Tension in the abdominals
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Shallow breathing, possibly mouth breathing
- Difficulty sitting still / desire to be distracted
- Intrusive thoughts / overthinking
- Irritability / lashing out / short fuse
These kinds of physiological clues let us know more about how we’re really feeling at a whole-person level: body and mind together. Dr Stephen Porges has offered a full inventory of these kinds of feelings and how they relate to what’s really going on under the surface – shedding light on how your body works in ways that you might never have considered.
You know which type of breathwork you need by reading your current state and then deciding where you’d like to go from there. You might read the signs and realise you’re feeling anxious – which could be fine if you’re trying to “turn up” for some high-pressure event but will leave you feeling drained / depleted / run down if you are amped up most of the day, every day and not working to balance that anxious energy with calming down regulation of your nervous system.
It’s the combination of reading the signs and knowing how to act on them that makes breathwork so effective. The problem is that the Wim Hof Method reduces them all down into a single tool – and claims it can fix everything…
Is the Wim Hof Method Really Appropriate for Your Situation?
But why does Wim’s website say his method is good for anxiety?
Wim Hof Breathing can be a major way to build your capacity to respond to stress in some situations. It trains your stress response by inducing a high-arousal, anxious state and guiding you through coming back down with skill from that stimulated state.
There are real benefits to controlling your breathing patterns consciously no matter how you breathe. It’s like how starting any exercise helps health – improving your breathing skill will help you keep a clear head, be more present and have more capacity for what life throws at you.
Additionally, improving your CO2 tolerance is a powerful way of increasing your ability to deal with real-life stress, whether mental or physical. It also builds health in your cardiovascular system, respiratory system and on a cellular level. Basically the higher your CO2 tolerance, the more resilient you are to stress.
But you need to have the spare bandwidth to do this.
This kind of bandwidth isn’t always there – especially if you’re someone who is already struggling with issues of panic, anxiety, or an overactive stress-response. In these situations, WHB is exactly the opposite of the downregulating, calming breathwork practices that would be powerful for stabilising your nervous system.
When you are dealing with chronic anxiety you do not have sufficient stability in your nervous system to deal with the additional challenge of WHB, cold showers, and other physiologically-stressful choices. You need to care for your nervous system first, building skill around calming, down regulating and restoring, not adding challenge after challenge.
You can think about this in the same way you’d think about exercise and rest: you don’t run a marathon and then go for a 5km run – you take rest. In much the same way, the healthy response to mental stress and anxiety is rest, recovery, and restoration. Breathwork has plenty of scope for these healthy practices – as well as WHB or Tummo – and what matters is getting the right practice for your current state and needs.
Bottomless Box Breathing: A simple practice to combat anxiety
Okay, so you feel edgy and tense all the time: What breathwork should you be doing?
Try starting with a Bottomless Box breath pattern.
This is a stabilising and calming pattern that helps downregulate physiological stress and helps reduce the feelings of anxiety you’re experiencing. Always use nasal breathing if that is available to you – this tells the brain you’ve got everything under control…
- Begin with a full nasal inhale, sending air to the bottom of the lungs first, then filling to the top
- Pause gently at the top for a few seconds
- Slowly – and fully – exhale for as long as you can comfortably manage, aiming to make it longer than your inhale (see PDF for visual guidance)
This method gently down regulates your body by introducing a slight, gradual rise in CO2 and an extended exhale that sends a message to your brain that things are safe. This is the opposite of the hyper-ventilation of a heavy up-regulating breathing pattern (like Wim Hof Breathing).
Focus on breathing into the lower lungs where your relaxation neurotransmitters live and repeat this pattern for a minimum of two minutes when you need to shift yourself from ‘stressed’ to ‘rested and ready’.
Making the most of Breathwork: Getting in touch with yourself
The fundamental idea behind mind-body health is the need to read state – to see how you really are in your body, in that moment, and to allow the body to offer the true story, not the ones we create in our heads about how we want to be, think we are, or were yesterday at lunchtime.
When we read state in the now we can see whether we want to reinforce how we are, move ourselves upward and ready for action, or down-regulate and re-stabilise. These skills are at the core of breathwork, and they apply to bottomless box breathing and Wim Hof breathing alike.
To get the hang of reading state you can play with breath patterns like Alternate Nostril Breathing, Breath of Fire, or simply many others that are out there.
Remember, however, that this is a toolkit. Don’t commit to a single style until you’ve played with it in different states and found that it works for you, personally. Remember: just because it comes up top in the results in YouTube doesn’t mean it’s right for you!
I use breathwork as a part of my clinical practice – helping clients read state, develop self-awareness systems, and practice healthy control of themselves. Using breathwork alongside other therapies and practices, we develop whole-person health, awareness, and wellbeing.
If you have any questions from this article or on how breathwork can be used in a health, wellbeing, or clinical setting then I would love to hear from you. Drop me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be sure to get back to you!