Tai Chi to Relax Stress and Axiety
Stress plays a huge role in disease. The effects of mental stress are insidious and affect the structure and function of the entire brain and body. As we age, we often have a harder time coping with stress. In fact, aging can be defined as the progressive decrease in the ability to adapt to mental and physical stress.
One part of Tai Chi practice is to release unnecessary tension in muscles. Muscles are an excellent mental “stress barometer” since anxiety causes increased muscle tension. Mental tension, in turn, is increased by high muscular tension, contributing to anxiety. Learning to release excess muscle tension through Tai Chi Chuan has a calming effect on the mind and decreases stress. Furthermore, the ability to notice that a stress response has occurred and soothe it, allows Tai Chi practitioners to return to a calm state more quickly, thereby reducing the tendency of mental stress to cause pain and disease.
By encouraging correct breathing, Tai Chi avoids the nervous system stimulation and inefficiency of thoracic respiration. Tai Chi respiration is calming mentally and physically.
Tai Chi also has a more direct effect on stress. When focusing the mind on the body and breath while scanning for unnecessary muscle tension, troubling thoughts arise less frequently and are easier to let go of as they arise. This practice of maintaining focus on the body and motion, and letting go of distracting thoughts is a great way to practice relaxation "on the fly".
Tai Chi elicits measurable aspects of the relaxation response including reducing cortisol production, decreasing anxiety, lessening mood disturbances, including tension, depression, anger and confusion and improving blood flow to the skin.
Tai Chi can have an agitating effect if taught poorly. If the movements are taught in too much detail (too soon), or in a competitive atmosphere, any potential for relaxation is likely to be squandered. On the other hand, if relaxation of the muscles is overemphasized to the exclusion of correct postural alignment and movement patterns, the potential for improvement in balance, strength, bone density, arthritis, low back pain, incontinence and functional status may be unrealized.
Historically, Tai Chi has been closely associated with Taoism. The happy serenity that characterizes this philosophy can improve outlook. By acting in harmony with life's circumstances (accepting “what is”), one may transform a negative outlook into a positive sense of optimism. In this view, anxiety is generated by an interfering and unappreciative mind. Taoism suggests the possibility of avoiding anxiety and emotions that deplete the body. This mindset is in agreement with contemporary cognitive-behavioral therapy approach to treatment of anxiety.
Finally, Taoists have a reputation for living long, healthy lives and Tai Chi practitioners are formidable opponents into old age. Rather than succumbing to frailty, these old masters improve in skill as their understanding of the art deepens. Exposure to this optimistic view of aging may in itself decrease stress in elders.
Filed under: Tai Chi