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.

Breathwork offers a big range of different practices and benefits. Wim Hof breathing is a single pattern based on an ancient practice called Tummo originally practiced by Tibetan monks. It’s on the stimulating end of the breathwork spectrum that includes Cyclical Hyperventilation or High Ventilation Breathwork. I prefer to call it ‘superventilation’ because there’s a big difference between over-breathing intentionally (superventilating) and over-breathing involuntarily (hyperventilating, like in a panic attack).

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 interacting 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 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 of 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 things 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 in 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.

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. This might occur immediately, the next day or it may gradually mount the more WHB is practiced.

Similarly, people with trauma may find that Wim Hof Breathing activates trauma re-experiencing and these individuals should find a breathwork practitioner who is trauma-trained before embarking on any cyclical superventilation practices.

To practice a stimulating breathwork practice you need to have spare bandwidth as it is, effectively, a source of stress.

Stress can create fantastic adaptations in humans, and we need stress in order to thrive, but be mindful if you are already under a lot of stress. Adding stress to stress will naturally result in burn out, depletion, low mood, or another form of your nervous system saying ‘I’ve had enough!’ Many people I work with are under far more stress in their nervous systems than they realise – take time to stop and do a self-inventory before experimenting too intensely with breath training and be prepared to gently observe how you feel afterward – immediately and for the following days.

So why does Wim’s website say his method is good for anxiety?

Wim Hof Breathing can be a powerful 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 from a stimulated state with skill.

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 breath skills 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 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 for stimulating breath practices.

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.Similarly, if your body is already under stress from illness or injury, you may benefit more from calming breath practices.

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.

The Benefits of Wim Hof Breathing

Wim Hof Breathing, when practiced regularly, particularly in combination with cold water exposure, has been shown to  reduce inflammation, symptoms of depression, and perceived stress. The research is clear that these benefits are found mainly with both Wim Hof Breathing and cold water exposure, not one or the other, and needs to be repeated for a minimum of 8 weeks. (Touskova et al., 2022 & Zwaag et al., 2022)

Like many breathwork practices, effects can be felt with as little as a 5 minute practice. If you need a quick pick-me-up or something to create focus and clarity, 5 minutes of Wim Hof Breathing has been proven more effective in improving mood than 5 minutes of meditation (Balbau et al., 2023).


WHB creates changes in the brain & body on a chemical level.

For this reason WHB and all cyclical superventilation is contraindicated for anyone who is or might be pregnant, has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease (COPD), history of strokes, heart conditions, aneurysms, history of psychosis, epilepsy, hypertension (high blood pressure) or panic disorder.

Principles before Methods

You might be noticing a theme here:  It’s important to learn how to read the state of you autonomic nervous system (how activated or deactivated you are) to determine whether any breathwork practice is right for  you. By learning to read state we start with the principle of NOTICING how we are without judgement.

Breathwork is a powerful tool to change brain state and to interface with our autonomic nervous system. With it we can gain increased self awareness, better energy management and support our mind-body systems in creating energy, restoration, or reinforcing when we feel really good.  To do ANY of this, you need to start with an awareness of where the mind-body system is before you can sense which way you need to go with it.

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

Anger / irritability / lashing out

Take a few breaths. Notice the quality of the breath – whether it feels calm and flowing, quick and tight, shallow, restricted, relaxed, or something else? Once we have a sense of what level of calm or activation is present in our nervous system, we can decide where to go from there – up, down or reinforce.

To this end, 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.

The Breathwork Spectrum

Breathwork can bring about different states in the nervous system:

  1. Upregulating state: Increase your energy, improve mood and awareness, get you ready for a performance or athletic event (try Alternate Nostril Breathing or Step Up Breathing).
  2. Reinforcement of good states or reading 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.).
  3. Downregulating your state: create calm, slow your breathing, think more clearly and restore your resting physiological functions (e.g. associated with recovery and growth.)

For each of these goals, there are dedicated breathwork and lifestyle practices. They represent the different directions toward which you can actively shift your body and mind .

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 feelings of anxiety. Always use nasal breathing if that is available to you – this practice tells the brain you’ve got everything under control…

  1. Begin with a full nasal inhale, sending air to the bottom of the lungs first, then filling to the top
  2. Pause gently at the top for a few seconds
  3. 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 NOTICE 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, the Long Exhale or 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!

Final Thoughts

I use breathwork as a primary focus in my clinical practice as a psychotherapist & functional breathing instructor – helping clients read state, develop self-awareness systems, and practice healthy interface with their autonomic nervous systems. 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 amj@evolve.me.uk and I’ll be sure to get back to you!


Fincham, G. W., Kartar, A., Uthaug, M., Anderson, B., Hall, L., Nagai, Y., … Colasanti, A. (2023, August 1). High Ventilation Breathwork practices: An overview of their effects, mechanisms, and considerations for clinical applications. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/z62fv

Petraskova Touskova T, Bob P, Bares Z, Vanickova Z, Nyvlt D, Raboch J. A novel Wim Hof psychophysiological training program to reduce stress responses during an Antarctic expedition. J Int Med Res. 2022 Apr;50(4):3000605221089883. doi: 10.1177/03000605221089883. PMID: 35437052; PMCID: PMC9021496.

Zwaag J, Naaktgeboren R, van Herwaarden AE, Pickkers P, Kox M. The Effects of Cold Exposure Training and a Breathing Exercise on the Inflammatory Response in Humans: A Pilot Study. Psychosom Med. 2022 May 1;84(4):457-467. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000001065. Epub 2022 Feb 23. PMID: 35213875; PMCID: PMC9071023.