Tai Chi provides a simple, accessible, and effective way to exercise the body and mind. The series of slow movements, performed with intense focus while breathing deeply calms the sympathetic nervous system, which guides the fight, or flight response. There are several styles of Tai Chi. Most of them incorporate poses, which take their names and movements from animals, vegetation, and other natural phenomena.
Activities, which support the health of the body, can also support mental health via the mind-body connection. Physical exercise provides many benefits. Tai Chi in particular offers a long list of physical and mental benefits. Regarding physical health, this form of exercise builds strength and muscular endurance, improves balance, increases flexibility, offers pain relief, and maintains joint health–allowing practitioners improved range of motion.
The mental health benefits include improved self-esteem and confidence, a more positive outlook and a general sense of well-being. It also allows practitioners to learn how to focus their attention; this ability may help some ease their tendency toward worry or anxiety.
The National Alliance On Mental Health reports that 18.1% of US adults experience some type of anxiety disorder, which includes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and various phobias. People also experience anxiety on a day-to-day basis as the pressure and stressors of life trigger the stress response in the body.
Tai Chi and Stress
A 2010 article published in the American Academy of Family Physicians journal, “Exercise, Yoga, and Meditation for Depressive and Anxiety Disorders,” analyzed several studies on the effects of Tai Chi, and other mind-body therapies, on anxiety and stress.
Analysis of the study outcomes showed Tai Chi improves the symptoms of depression in adults ages 50 to 84. The results also show the improvement may be primarily associated with the social support found by practicing Tai Chi in-group settings. The authors based this conclusion on follow-up observations, which showed declines in the improvements after class participation ended.
Tai Chi and Anxiety
Exercise in general causes improvements in the symptoms of people with anxiety disorder order. They experience a decrease in panic attacks, nervousness, and other symptoms. Tai Chi’s meditative element may lend further support for symptom relief.
The data analysis of the studies covered in the previously mentioned AAFP article indicated that meditation is an effective therapy for people with anxiety disorders.
Why Does It Work?
Tai Chi causes changes in the brain, which build cognitive functions and keep the brain young.
• In general, people experience a loss in grey matter as they age. Grey matter is the conductor of brain activity; it carries the electrical signals of our thoughts to the different sections of the brain. Tai Chi practitioners build grey matter up to 40 percent with extended and consistent practice.
• It increases cortical wall density. Thicker cortical walls are associated with decreased cognitive decline, which supports faster decision making, improved ability to focus and better memory.
• Tai Chi builds neuroplasticity. It helps the brain build new connections based on daily experiences and reorganize current connections. As they learn and perform Tai Chi exercises, practitioners exercise their mental muscles: building attention, memory, and proprioception. This strengthens a person’s ability to manage daily stressors.
• These brain benefits also prevent cyclical negative thoughts. Instead of worrying about past, present or future outcomes, Tai Chi practitioners are better able to move on to the next thought and address stressful situations in a forward thinking fashion.
• Tai Chi is a meditative movement practice that involves slow, fluid movement as one transitions from one form to the next. This type of movement requires a high level of concentration from the mind, which in turn allows a profound calm to take place. This calming of the mind does not stop once a session of Tai Chi is over, with regular practice it becomes a part of the practitioner, which allows them to cope with life’s stress in a more calm and peaceful manner helping to reduce anxiety exponentially.
Tai Chi is especially beneficial for older adults and elderly people who find other forms of physical activity challenging. The slow-motion, low impact and meditative nature of the practice allow them to access multiple benefits without having to set aside time to exercise and an additional period of time to meditate. They experience health gains, stress relief, and decreased anxiety with one activity.
Consistent practice, two to three times per week, is the key to successfully using Tai Chi to combat depression and anxiety. The combined physical and mental benefits of practicing Tai Chi, along with its effectiveness, make it a popular alternative therapy with people of all ages.