Stress plays a dominant role in human disease. The effects of mental stress are insidious and affect structure and function of the entire brain and body. As we age, we have a harder time coping with stress. In fact, aging may be defined as the progressive decrease in the ability to adapt to mental and physical stress.

One part of Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong practice is to release unnecessary tension in muscles. Muscles are an excellent mental stress barometer since hyper-arousal consistently leads to amplified muscle tension. Mental tension is increased by high musculoskeletal tension, contributing to anxiety. Learning to release excess muscle tension through Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong has a calming effect on the mind and decreases psychophysiological arousal. Furthermore, the ability to notice that a stress response has occurred and reverse it, allows one to return to homeostasis more quickly, thereby reducing the tendency of mental stress to be a precursor to disease.

By encouraging diaphragmatic breathing, Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong avoid the sympathetic nervous system stimulation and inefficiency of thoracic respiration. Diaphragmatic respiration is widely acknowledged to be calming mentally and physically.

Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong also have a more direct effect on anxiety. By employing a repetitive focal device, an expansive mode of thinking is facilitated. When focusing the mind on the body and breath while scanning for inappropriate muscle tension, troubling thoughts may arise less frequently and may be 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 in agreement with the definition of a relaxation technique developed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and other authorities on relaxation techniques.

Tai Chi has been shown to elicit key 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 Chuan and Qigong could have an agitating effect if taught poorly. If the movements are taught in overwhelming detail, or in an egocentric, competitive atmosphere, any potential for physiological quieting is unrealized. Conversely, if relaxation of the muscles is overemphasized to the exclusion of postural alignment and movement pattern considerations, the potential for improvement in balance, strength, bone density, arthritis, low back pain, incontinence and functional status may be squandered.

Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong are closely associated with Taoism. The happy serenity that characterizes this philosophy may have an impact on people. By acting in harmony with life's circumstances, 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 Chuan masters have a reputation for being formidable opponents into old age. Rather than succumbing to frailty, these venerable masters improve in skill as their understanding of the art deepens. This tradition exposes people to an optimistic view of aging. This exposure may in itself improve functional mobility in elders.

© Bill Gallagher PT, CMT, CYT

Author's Bio: 

Bill Gallagher MSPT, CMT, CYT

Director of the East West Rehabilitation Institute in New York City Advanced Clinician in Integrative Rehabilitation at Mount Sinai Medical Center Instructor in Clinical Physical Therapy at Columbia University

Bill has developed a uniquely integrative approach to help people suffering from pain and disability. By integrating the Physical Therapy traditions of the East (Yoga, Qigong, Taijiquan, Tuina) with cutting edge therapies, biomechanics and motor learning theory of the West, Bill helps his clients maximize function and minimize pain. Through meditation instruction, guided imagery, biofeedback and other disciplines that work with the Mind-Body-Spirit, clients are further empowered to optimize function and comfort.

In addition to his work with inpatients and outpatients at Mount Sinai Medical Center, he sees a broad spectrum of clients in his private practice including people with severe disabilities and elite performers. Yoga and Tai Chi are integrated into treatment for the majority of these patients.

Bill is recognized as an authority on Integrative/Mind-Body/Complementary rehabilitation and teaches his visionary synthesis at Columbia University, Touro College, Long Island University and New York University. See the July 2003 issue of Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation for his article evaluating the clinical applications of Tai Chi & Qigong to prevent and reverse frailty in elders.
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