Tai Chi for Stress
Sep 21, 2020
Public Health Report by: Eric L. Zielinski
Stress kills. In fact, it’s the number one killer in the world. It has been linked to every disease process known to science and is the primary cause of the current global health care crisis. Oftentimes a misnomer, people usually equate stress with job dissatisfaction, marital problems or financial hardships. Although these are regular factors, stress encompasses much more. Inadvertently, everything people do that is not contributing to health and wellness will ultimately result in a stress response at the cellular level. This includes things like eating poor diet, lacking sleep, drinking too much caffeine, breathing polluted air and living a sedentary lifestyle.
There is hope, however, and research has been highlighting practices like Tai Chi to naturally combat all the toxins we encounter every day.
According to the American Psychological Association,
“Stress can be a reaction to a short-lived situation, such as being stuck in traffic. Or it can last a long time if you’re dealing with relationship problems, a spouse’s death or other serious situations. Stress becomes dangerous when it interferes with your ability to live a normal life over an extended period. You may feel tired, unable to concentrate or irritable. Stress can also damage your physical health.”
This last point cannot be over-emphasized. Our bodies were designed to operate under specific living conditions. Everyone has a personal set point that is individualized for their specific biochemical individuality. Hence, when someone deviates from this relative “norm” in one way or another, the body’s internal response is to protect itself. Subsequently, the sympathetic nervous system – the “fight or flight” response – assumes control and every nerve and cell is ready to respond to potential danger in an instant. This is a wonderful mechanism, yet only if it operates as initially intended.
First described in 1915 by Walter B. Cannon, MD – Chairman of the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School – this stress response results in the following:
- The digestive system shuts down because all energy is needed for fight/flight.
- Heart rate increases to better supply blood to extremities for fight/flight.
- Pupils dilate to increase the eye’s exposure to light, thereby increasing sensory information to the brain.
- Mental awareness heightens.
- Blood glucose levels increase to have a steady stream of energy ready for fight/flight.
- Respiration rate increases thereby increasing oxygen to the brain and prepares someone for a quick burst of energy.
- Goose bumps and hair will stand on end as part of a reflex indicating that these muscles are stimulated which serves as a warning to other animals. To understand the evolutionary advantage to this think about a porcupine’s quills sticking straight out when threatened.
The problem that people face today is that they are constantly in this fight/flight mode. Originally designed for sporadic events when absolutely necessary, humans are literally unable to sustain this type of sympathetic response for extended periods. Eventually, the body’s internal regulatory mechanisms begin to break down and everything from atherosclerosis to diabetes assumes.
Medical Research and Management
Medical management for stress varies considerably. Physicians have been known to approach the issue in a variety of ways including:
- Diet changes
- Improved sleep
- Social interaction
- Psychological therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Massage therapy
- Drug therapy
- “Alternative” practices like meditation and Tai Chi.
Typically, acute stress is treated by short-term use of anti-anxiety or sedative medications. Treatment of chronic stress disorders, however, usually involves a combination of medications and cognitive or behavioral therapy.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center health care providers may prescribe the following medications for symptom relief related to stress disorders.
- Benzodiazepines – a group of drugs known for their sedating effects. They take effect quickly and are habit-forming. Consequently, they are generally prescribed for short-term use. In addition to causing drowsiness, constipation or nausea serious side effects include: anterograde amnesia, rebound anxiety, memory impairment, and discontinuation syndrome, risk of falling for the elderly, and a number of birth defects for infants born to mothers taking benzodiazepines. Examples include: alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan).
- Buspirone (BuSpar) – an anti-anxiety drug suspected of not causing withdrawal, dependence or rebound anxiety after discontinuation. Adverse reactions often takes days or even weeks to surface. Side effects include: chest pain; changes in blood pressure insomnia; drowsiness; nervousness; light-headedness; upset stomach; nausea; diarrhea; headaches and a number of psychiatric conditions such as mania, hypomania, vivid dreams, delirium, panic attack, and psychosis.
- Antidepressants – oftentimes prescribed for people with moderate to severe stress and depression, antidepressants act on neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that are believed to be involved in the stress response. In general, antidepressants can cause: nausea; increased appetite and weight gain; loss of sexual desire and other sexual problems, such as erectile dysfunction and decreased orgasm; fatigue and drowsiness; insomnia; dry mouth; blurred vision; constipation; dizziness; agitation; irritability; anxiety. Common antidepressants used to treat stress disorders include: Duloxetine (Cymbalta), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), venlafaxine (Effexor).
Although none of these drugs have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for stress management, millions of American use them daily. According to the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS), “It is important to persist with treatment, even if you are affected by side effects, as it will take several weeks before you begin to benefit from treatment. With time you should find that the benefits of treatment outweigh any problems related to side effects.”
Research showing Tai Chi’s ability to help reduce stress
The Mayo Clinic recommends Tai Chi to help reduce stress and the trend continues throughout the medical community. Heralded for its effect on mind-body control, more physicians are encouraging people to take charge of their lives and be free from harmful, habit-forming medications.
- Ever since a 1989 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, the psychological benefits of those practicing Tai Chi has been extensively researched. In this now classic text, La Trobe University researchers assessed 33 Tai Chi novices and 33 regular practitioners. It was observed in both groups that, “Tai Chi raised heart rate, increased noradrenaline excretion in urine, and decreased salivary cortisol concentration. Relative to baseline levels, subjects reported less tension, depression, anger, fatigue, confusion and state-anxiety, they felt more vigorous, and in general they had less total mood disturbance.” In addition to the subjective benefits experienced by the participants, the significance of this study is that Tai Chi’s ability to decrease salivary cortisol levels equates it directly with its capacity to decrease stress in someone’s life. As cortisol levels are a well-known stress marker, this study convincing proves that Tai Chi is an effective stress management tool.
- In 2000, an article titled, “The Effects of Tai Chi Chuan Relaxation and Exercise on Stress Responses and Well-Being: An Overview of Research” was published in the International Journal of Stress Management and posed some inquisitive questions on Tai Chi’s effectiveness on stress management. Portraying that Tai Chi leads to “improvements to mood,” researchers conveyed their confusion as to the exact reason why. Specifically, they postulated, “It is not clear whether the positive effects of Tai Chi are due solely to its relaxation and meditation component, or whether they are the consequence of various peripheral factors, since it is known that stress reduction often occurs when we indulge in activities we find pleasurable and satisfying. An important finding is that all studies on the benefits of Tai Chi for senior adults have revealed positive results.” In other words, practicing Tai Chi drastically reduces stress, but – like many topics being tested by science no one knows exactly why.
- In regards to younger people, the Journal of Pediatric Health Care published a study in 2005 describing a clinical project that used combined Tai Chi and mindfulness-based stress reduction as an educational program for middle school-aged children. Both boys and girls participated in a five-week program and statements made by the students suggested that “suggested that they experienced well-being, calmness, relaxation, improved sleep, less reactivity, increased self-care, self-awareness, and a sense of interconnection or interdependence with nature.” Subjective by design, this study offers much hope that people of all ages will benefit from practicing Tai Chi in regards to stress management.
- The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology contains a 2008 article reporting the results of alternative stress management interventions in people infected with HIV. Interestingly, the mental stress leading to immune system dysfunction cascade has been proven to contribute to disease progression in HIV patients. Subsequently, it was suspected that alternative stress management interventions like Tai Chi would enhance immune function for these patients, thereby decrease HIV symptoms and related concerns. Three 10-week stress management approaches – cognitive-behavioral relaxation training, focused tai chi training and spiritual growth groups – were compared to a control group among 252 individuals with HIV infection. The authors discovered that in comparison to the control group, both the cognitive-behavioral relaxation training and focused tai chi training groups used less emotion-focused coping, and “all treatment groups had augmented lymphocyte proliferative function.” In addition, psychosocial functioning was enhanced and “robust findings of improved immune function have important clinical implications, particularly for persons with immune-mediated illnesses.” Consequently, as immune function is directly related to all forms of ill-health, the results of this study provides significant hope for people suffering from a variety of chronic diseases.
- Just recently, the Journal of Investigative Medicine published in article in which University of New Mexico researchers conducted a literature review evaluating how people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) respond to mind-body practices like Tai Chi. Of the 96 articles identified, 16 were used for the review and the researchers discovered, “Mind-body practices incorporate numerous therapeutic effects on stress responses, including reductions in anxiety, depression, and anger, and increases in pain tolerance, self-esteem, energy levels, ability to relax, and ability to cope with stressful situations. In general, mind-body practices were found to be a viable intervention to improve the constellation of PTSD symptoms such as intrusive memories, avoidance, and increased emotional arousal.” The authors encouraged readers, clinicians and patients to explore individualized treatment plans “enhanced by mind-body interventions as part of ongoing self-care.”
The list seems never ending, but suffice it to say that people of all ages who practice Tai Chi are infinitely less likely to experience debilitating stress.
Through a variety of mechanisms, practicing Tai Chi has been praised for reducing stress and is a viable alternative to drugs or harmful therapies. The sublime focus of the mind guiding the body’s movement – thinking only of the movement – has been shown to interfere with and can even turn off the sympathetic stress response. As stated by the Mayo Clinic, “While you may get some benefit from a 12-week tai chi class, you may enjoy greater benefits if you continue tai chi for the long term and become more skilled.” So, keep your focus on the prize and watch your worries disappear.
Medical Studies and Resources
International Journal of Stress Management
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
Journal of Pediatric Health Care
Journal of Investigative Medicine
Journal of Psychosomatic Research