Wim Hof: Breathing exercises and their benefits for Mental Health

Sam Gibson

Sam Gibson

Wim Hof: world record breaker, rewriter of science, healer of disease. Known in the media as the Ice Man he gained renown for his ability to use breathing techniques and meditation to withstand extreme temperatures for times previously thought impossible for a human. He is a weird, wacky but wonderful man with a meaningful message behind his work, using charisma, dedication and ultimately science to try and propel his healing method into the mainstream.

He has garnered a modest collection of world records (totalling at just below 20) for achieving such feats as enduring the longest ice bath and running around the polar circle doing marathons. His method is comprised of three components: Deep breathing techniques, meditation and cold exposure. He has been referred to as a superhuman and there are countless testimonials detailing how the Wim Hof Method (WHM) has helped people heal a wide variety of diseases.

To understand a bit more about the origins of the method let us take a tragic trip back in time to 1995. His Wife, Olaya, committed suicide after fighting a losing battle against a miserable medley of mental health disorders including depression and psychosis. This left Wim alone as a single dad, tasked with providing and caring for their 4 children. Wim was depressed for years due to the grief that ensued from his wife’s passing. This eventually resulted in him looking inwards for answers as he began his extreme exploration of physiology and mental strength. He wanted to develop a method that would make people happier, stronger and healthier. 


Wim states he is by no means the first person to use the techniques discussed in the WHM. The deep, diaphragmatic breathing that is used shares similarities with the ancient practice of Kundalini meditation which is mentioned in scriptures that date as far back as 500 B.C. His drive to make it evidence based through science and spread it to as many people as possible, however, is unique. His mission is to use himself as a Guinea pig and his body as a laboratory to revolutionize our understanding of human physiology. In 2011, he took part in a scientific study that changed our understanding of the nervous system. He was injected with a bacterial endotoxin. This is a substance that in normal humans would cause a strong immune response leading to chills, fever and headaches. Wim, though, was somehow able to suppress the immune response by making his body secrete adrenaline. Many scientists claimed this didn’t prove anything and that Wim was just a freak of nature, a superhuman. He shattered their illusions once again as he trained 12 other people to do the exact same thing.

Adrenaline is released by the autonomic nervous system. The word autonomic here means you cannot voluntarily influence it. The locus of control is out of our grasp-or so we previously thought. This system is inextricably linked to the immune system and extensive communication occurs between the two systems. Following from this, we can deduce that our Immune function can be influenced and to some extent, controlled by using the method. If this is true it has significant health consequences and provides new avenues for treatment for many disorders. For example, disorders where the immune system is overactive such as Crohn’s disease, Rheumatoid arthritis and Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) to name but a few.

Some of the reported benefits that the WHM affords to its followers are:
• Boosts the immune system
• Increases energy
• Relieves stress
• Improves sleep
• Increases willpower
• Improves mental wellbeing
• Lowers inflammation

It is interesting to note that a new theory on the origin of many mental health disorders is that they are a result of inflammation in the brain. The fact that some have recovered from their depression and/or anxiety and credit the method serves as evidence for this emerging theory. It is far too early to make any definitive conclusions on this issue, however.

The focus of this blog with be on the breathing techniques used in the WHM, cold exposure and meditation will be covered thoroughly in other blog posts. People usually do 3/4 rounds of the breathing technique. Below you will find how to do one round of the technique. 

Hover here to learn how to do the technique

Step 1-Controlled breathing
This phase consists of 30-40 cycles of breathing. You take a deep breath in, sucking in as much oxygen as possible and fully filling the lungs. Then you breathe out passively, releasing the breath more than expelling it. Try not to breathe fully out. Tingling sensations and light headedness may be experienced in this phase.

Step 2-Exhalation and retention
After the 30-40 cycles of controlled breathing take a deep breath in and let it out but do not fully empty the lungs. Try to maintain a neutral air pressure between the lungs and the environment. Hold your breath for as long as possible.

Step 3-Final breath and hold
When a strong urge to breathe occurs and you can hold your breath no longer, take a big deep breath in and hold again for 10-20 seconds. You may experience a head rush sensation.
Click here for a video explaining how to do the technique

Now I have set the historical, scientific and practical scene I will talk about my personal experience. I have tried the breathing exercises before and felt really good from it. This is in part due to the natural high you experience when doing multiple rounds of the exercise. Never before have I committed as fully as this or stringed together enough days in a row to form any semblance of consistency. It is, however, quite a lot of effort and when I push myself to my limits, I often break into quite a sweat. In other words, if you’re feeling a bit low, lethargic or even just lazy it is the one of the last things you’re in the mood for. With my eczema being inflammatory and an autoimmune disorder, I have more reason than most to try to stick to it as it has been touted as very beneficial for diseases of this type.

I recorded my retention times (how long I hold my breath for in step 2) on the WHM app so you can see below my progress (and periods of regression) over the last month or so.

As you can see, one day I had a massive dip in my performance, and I couldn’t figure out why. My poor form continued for about a week. I was stumped. I was very close to quitting several times throughout this week. Why carry on if I am getting worse? I thought. I pushed through it and figured out the problem with my technique that was holding me back and the other problem that was a lack of self-belief. I have asthma and thought, maybe this type of thing just isn’t for me. Nevertheless, I persisted and felt a host of benefits. I think the majority of the benefits are attributable to the breathing exercises, but I was also doing fairly regular cold exposure and meditation. I wanted to do it every day for 30 days, but it got to the point that I was really stressed until I did it every day because I was scared I would forget or could not muster the energy. This stress was probably harming me just as much as the method was healing me, so I decided to take a few days off. I made it to 27 days and am very happy with that. I will start it again soon but give myself more leeway and try not to feel stressed or guilty about not doing it. It does require a good deal of effort, but you only have to look at the testimonials page of the WHM website to see the profound effects is can have whether you are looking to aid the recovery of a mental/physical ailment or just improve your overall wellbeing.

What effects have I felt?

  • Increased energy- you definitely feel invigorated after a few rounds.
  • Increased willpower- anything that you do consistently, and push yourself to improve at will likely have this side effect.
  • Improved mental wellbeing- I don’t use it reactively, so haven’t used it to try and calm down when I’m stressed. When I have done it, though, I have noticed a peaceful feeling wash over me.
  • Lowers inflammation and boosts the immune system- I had a day off my diet to celebrate receiving the result of my degree. Gorging on two whole bars of chocolate, two jam donuts, a pastel de nata, a bag of tangfastics and 5 hobnobs. A deviation of this magnitude would usually cause both my skin and my negative feelings towards myself to flare up. My skin had deteriorated some degree but not to a severity which limited me from doing anything or caused me great discomfort. This is so unusual I couldn’t quite believe it.

Buddhists, Yogis and Eastern healers have all believed for hundreds of years that the breath is the foundation of our life force and energy. The west is catching up with its recognition of this belief as studies now show breathing exercises can reduce anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function and encourage positive thought patterns. There are a whole host of beneficial breathing exercises you can do if the one discussed in this blog is too vigorous or effortful. Here are a couple of simpler, more relaxed exercises you can try.

Box breathing

A very simple technique where you inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds then exhale for 4 seconds, then repeat.

Alternate nostril breathing

Another widely used technique is that of alternate nostril breathing which increases energy and calm. In this, you take your thumb and close off one nostril, breathe in fully. Release your thumb and use a finger to close off the opposite nostril then exhale slowly.

If you haven’t already, I would definitely recommend you try to incorporate some sort of controlled breathing into your life. It has certainly helped me a great deal, I hope it can help you too.

Big Love, Sam x

Tunes that sum up this blog:

This is one type of song I would listen to whilst doing the breathing exercises. I found it easier when the beat’s a bit slower and the songs a bit deep.

This is a more uplifting, upbeat one from Jack Garratt.