De-Stress with Tai Chi
By Bill Reddy
Beginning in the early 1970s, when the "bamboo curtain" was lifted, a few jewels of Chinese culture began to trickle into the West. One specific example of China's best-kept secrets is the use of acupuncture and tai chi to combat stress.
Stress can be simply defined as "what you feel when life's demands exceed your ability to meet those demands." A vast majority of people living in populated urban areas can identify with the feeling of being overwhelmed. Job, school, family and social engagements are all competing for their place on their collective schedules. Even though most people have little control over the stressors in their lives, they can actively change how they respond to them through the practice of tai chi or by getting acupuncture treatment.
The Chinese view physical manifestation of stress as a stagnation or blockage of internal energy, what they call qi (pronounced "chee"). Signs and symptoms of stress can include: tension headaches, sleep disturbances, hair loss, fatigue, hypertension, heart palpitations, cold hands and feet, and immune-system suppression, to name a few. Having a compromised immune system can present itself with symptoms such as frequent colds, flu, bronchitis or sinusitis, and in extreme cases, autoimmune disorders such as lupus and Crohn's disease.
Both acupuncture and tai chi are ways to release blockages and promote the free flow of this energy. Scientists are still trying to fully understand the mechanisms of acupuncture, the millennia-old method of inserting fine hair-like needles into the body to promote health and well-being. It has a strong scientific basis and has been featured in more than 11,000 journal articles available through the National Institutes of Health database, PubMed, studying acupuncture through double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials.
According to a Yale Medical School study involving 55 healthy volunteers, acupuncture was shown to significantly reduce stress, as measured by blood pressure, anxiety, heart rate and electrodermal activity. Medical doctors are interested in using this modality of treatment to relax patients before surgical procedures. Additionally, in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in 1998, researchers demonstrated that acupuncture was 85.7 percent effective at treating patients with generalized anxiety disorder with no negative side effects.
In contrast, a common anti-anxiety drug such as Klonopin has the following side effects: clumsiness, dizziness, drowsiness, slurred speech, abdominal/stomach cramps, lack of sexual desire, constipation, diarrhea, dry mouth, headache, muscle spasms, nausea or vomiting, trembling and fatigue, to name a few. The major difference between Western (allopathic) medicine and Eastern medicine is that Western medicine tends to treat the symptoms (migraines, arthritis pain, allergies), whereas traditional Chinese medicine treats the root cause, leading to the symptom(s) disappearing.
Some experts describe tai chi as "acupuncture without needles." Webster's collegiate dictionary defines tai chi as "an ancient Chinese discipline of meditative movements practiced as a system of exercise," but this definition completely ignores the practice's ability to balance a person's qi.
Tai chi literally translates into English as "supreme ultimate," which gives a sense of how the Chinese view this art form. Not only do the slow twisting and untwisting movements of tai chi massage a practitioner's internal organs, increasing blood circulation and optimizing spinal-nerve transmission, but also they reduce key "stress chemicals" in the body. Seniors who practice tai chi regularly have a significantly lower chance of falls compared to their peers due to improved balance. Tai chi also benefits their cardiovascular and respiratory health and immune function, according to a 2004 article published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine Rehabilitation.
Originally, tai chi chuan (where "chuan" means "fist" or "boxing") was developed to train the Chinese emperor's troops for battlefield warfare. There are a large number of styles of tai chi named after the family who developed them (Yang, Wu, Sun Chen), with the most common feature being slow, fluid, dance-like movements. A few styles incorporate explosive actions along with the slow movements. In a recent interview, Dr. Lixing Lao, director of the University of Maryland's complementary and integrative medicine program and tai chi instructor, said "Not only do I see profound improvement of my Tai Qi students' perception of stress, but also I keep my own stress levels at bay, despite my harried schedule of teaching, researching, treating patients and publishing."
A combination of acupuncture and tai chi practice is synergistic and has the greatest effect on reducing stress and should be seriously considered in any holistic stress management program.
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Bill Reddy was an aerospace engineer before becoming a licensed acupuncturist with practices in Annandale and Alexandria, Va. He is a board member of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.