The demands of modern-day life, not to mention the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, have made managing and maintaining mental health a crucial issue. The United Nations went so far as to declare us in the midst of a mental health crisis brought on by economic stress, isolation, and the disruption of mental health services.
In these challenging times, knowing simple mind-body practices that can be done at home can serve as a great tool to improve mental health outcomes (Pollock, et al, 2020). Two of these practices are tai chi and qigong.
Recent research is now showing that these two practices show great promise in not only improving overall mental health, but also treating specific mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression.
The Traditions of Tai Chi and Qigong
Tai chi and qigong are ancient and traditional Chinese practices. They are based on the foundational theories of traditional Chinese Medicine and rooted in their understanding of human anatomy and breath regulation.
Qigong is understood as energy cultivation and consists of a variety of breathing exercises with coordinated body movements that support health and longevity. It is a practice that emerged from Confucian, Buddhist, Daoist, martial arts, and Chinese Medicine systems.
Each of these systems has differing aims for energy cultivation, but ultimately create the same physiological response. The medical use of qigong aims to improve physical and mental-emotional wellness, as well as to treat presented illnesses.
Tai chi is a longevity practice stemming from martial arts. It involves aligning the breath with choreographed movements that have self-defense applications. It is a practice that encourages slow and soft martial art movements and seeks to help the practitioner align their breath with their surroundings. It is a meditative practice that promotes the release of physiological and mental tension. For this reason, tai chi, along with qigong, are powerful tools within the Chinese Medical toolbox to support optimum mental health.
A Growing Body of Research on the Mental Health Impacts of Tai Chi and Qigong
Recently, both tai chi and qigong have gained popularity as more and more clinical research has validated their effectiveness and as more people have sought out alternatives to traditional Western approaches to supporting mental health (Saeed, et al, 2019).
As a result, health practitioners are now accepting these practices as supportive therapies for chronic clinical conditions such as chronic pain, mental health pathology, and addiction (Toneti, et al, 2020). Additionally, people not suffering from these illnesses have also found these practices to be beneficial for stress management (Clark, et al, 2015).
Mindfulness has been defined as focusing one’s awareness on the present moment to accept one’s current mental-emotional state and physical sensations. In cultivating mindfulness, one can return to a balanced state of mental-emotional health as awareness of the present state is the first step to obtaining optimum mental health. These trends have led researchers to investigate the effects of tai chi and qigong on specific conditions such as COPD, cancer, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease, osteoarthritis, coronary heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and others (Klein, et al, 2019).
While it is encouraging to see so many randomized and controlled trials aiming to use these mind-body-based practices as adjunct therapies for pathological conditions, their benefits would seem to extend to the mental health of all those experiencing stress.
How Tai Chi and Qigong Affect Anxiety, Depression and Our Sense of Well-being
To that end, I conducted a narrative review of academic literature to identify what the research shows from this broader perspective. My review found that the integration of the mind-body practices of tai chi and qigong support mental health.
That said, follow-up studies focusing on the prevention of mental health imbalances are required to further support this claim. Still, the current literature shows that these practices can be helpful to address the mental-emotional imbalances of anxiety and depression and improve our overall sense of well-being.
Several studies found that the practice of tai chi or qigong resulted in a significant decrease in anxiety. One trial concluded that tai chi is a safer, more cost-effective, and less physically vigorous alternative to exercise for calming anxiety (Zheng, et al, 2017). Many times, vigorous exercise is suggested for anxiety relief, but tai-chi offers an increased likelihood of diminishing anxiety.
Another randomized clinical trial aimed to address anxiety in a nursing student population dealing with test anxiety. The researchers staged a “tai chi intervention” (Kabiri, et al, 2019) and found that the application of tai chi not only addressed the students’ anxiety, but also improved their self-confidence.
Another randomized controlled trial investigated the effectiveness of qigong versus mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to treat anxiety among Chinese participants (Chan, et al, 2020). It found that the qigong group had a higher reduction in their anxiety symptoms in comparison to that of the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy group.
The trial also noted that the qigong intervention had greater outcome measures (as defined by the researchers) in addressing physical health issues than does mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, making it generally more acceptable and effective amongst its Chinese population.
Studies investigating tai chi and qigong interventions for depression also show much promise.
One particular study aimed to treat a mixed presentation of anxiety and depression, what is called cothymia, in a population of children ages 6 to 11 (Rodriguez, et al, 2021). Cothymia has a higher risk of suicide, and those who suffer from it are less likely to comply with their medical treatment protocols.
The results of the study showed a 46% improvement in symptoms. While more follow-up research is required as this study had only six participants, it is important to assess a population that currently has minimal research with mind-body interventions. Further research investigating the implications and effects of tai chi and qigong in children could lead to conclusive evidence of the prevention of mental health disorders.
Another controlled trial investigated the therapeutic effects of tai chi in adolescents with sub-threshold depression (a clinically significant presentation of depression symptoms that do not meet the criteria of the major depressive disorders). After an 8-week intervention of 90-minute tai chi sessions twice a week, participants in the group had decreased symptoms of depression, decreased stress levels, and an increase in mindfulness.
The literature also found that these mind-body practices are supportive of our overall sense of well-being.
One study investigated the effects of qigong and tai chi on a variety of outcomes, including psychological health, life satisfaction, endocrine, and sexual health (Walther, et al, 2018). The trial group consisted of 56 men between the ages of 40 and 75 years at a Kung Fu Self Defense Martial Arts Academy. The study concluded that an increase in tai chi and qigong sessions led to higher life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms.
As for impacts on the endocrine system, the study found a deceleration of cortisol increase and a testosterone decline. This study was particularly insightful as it compared the men to a control with no tai-chi and qigong practice. It’s also to be noted as it not only was investigating mental health but also the HPA and HPG axis, which are both most certainly at play with mental health.
Another pilot study aimed to address the effects of both tai chi and qigong on the psychosocial well-being of an elderly population (Chan, et al, 2017). One particular trial found that tai chi improved the psycho-emotional state of people aged 60-78 during the COVID-19 pandemic (Solianik, et al, 2021). This study is important because seniors faced a high level of mental health deterioration during the pandemic due to the social isolation of lockdowns and being part of the at-risk population.
The study suggested tai chi as an effective intervention for older adults to improve mental health and strongly suggests that it can benefit mental-emotional health during high-stress situations.
Why You Should Explore Adopting These Practices
These studies show that the mind-body practices of tai chi and qigong can significantly reduce negative emotions, anxiety, and depression in overall healthy individuals. The research suggests that health practitioners can use these practices as non-pharmacological therapies to support the treatment of depression and anxiety.
Even more exciting is the prospect that these practices can prevent mental and emotional disorders and aid in our daily mental health upkeep. All of which is to say that whether you suffer from anxiety, depression, or simply have a desire to maintain and improve your mental health, tai chi and qigong are practices you should explore.
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