Category : Research
Much is often said about the benefits Tai Chi has for a person’s physical health: strength, balance, coordination, even specific physical ailments such as arthritis and blood pressure. Yet Tai Chi also has many benefits for your mental and emotional health and well being.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO)1., as many as 1 in 8 people around the world – 970 million people – are diagnosed as having some form of mental health issue. In the US alone, 4% of the population suffer from a serious mental illness such as major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia2.. The global impact of mental health is staggering: from an economic standpoint alone it is estimated that the cost of mental health-related issues – not just in terms of medical care but flow on effects, such as lost wages, etc. – is about $5 trillion USD annually, and rising3.. Clearly, any intervention that can have a positive impact on mental health and reduce the burden to individuals, families, and the broader community can only be beneficial.
There has been a great deal of research into the benefits Tai Chi can have on mental and emotional well being. across a variety of populations. Many of these studies have found that Tai Chi can:
- reduce levels of stress, anxiety and depression, both in terms of self-reporting and physiological responses, for example, reduced presence of cortisol (a stress hormone) in saliva4.;
- improve sleep quality, as indicated by standardized, evidence-based tests such as the Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index (PSQI)5.;
- improve quality of life, as indicated by standardized, evidence-based tests such as Health Related Quality of Life (HRQOL)6.
A number of studies further indicate that Tai Chi may be more effective than other forms of exercise in terms of the overall and lasting benefits to mental and emotional well being.
Though it would seem obvious that the slow movements, calm disposition and subsequent relaxed state a person finds themself in when practicing Tai Chi would produce these results, researchers are investigating the specific physiological effects that Tai Chi has on the body that would account for these changes. One theory is that Tai Chi encourages the production of chemical mediators such as serotonin and dopamine, which in turn releases the body’s natural opioids (endorphins), in much the same way as certain forms of moderate intensity exercise have been demonstrated to do (eg: the “runner’s high”)7. The caveat being that Tai Chi is very much a lower intensity form of exercise, and therefore may be more accessible to the average person.
Another theory is the prefrontal cortex hypothesis proposed by Yao and colleagues8. The basis of this theory is as follows: one of the main functions of the prefrontal cortex of the brain is to regulate our emotional behaviours and responses through its connections to other parts of the brain – it is sometimes referred to as the “immune system of mental health”. Functional MRI studies have demonstrated changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain of Tai Chi practitioners compared with control groups, which enhances the function and response of the prefrontal cortex, similar to that seen in studies involving meditation and aerobic exercise. Though Yao and colleagues admit that more specific research is required to prove/disprove this theory, the supporting evidence looks promising.
While clinical research supports the evidence that Tai Chi practice is beneficial for mental health, it generally only reflects the approach from the view of the Western medical model. Increasingly research is being conducted to support the Eastern concepts of health and the role this affect this might have on mental and emotional well being. For example, in their book, The Tao of Trauma, authors Duncan and Kain explain the relationship between polyvagal theory – the theory that our behavioural state is regulated by the autonomic nervous system primarily through the vagus nerve – and Five Element Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), as a means of understanding how our biological systems respond to our environment and how, if this response is interrupted or not allowed to run its full cycle, the system becomes imbalanced and the result is a traumatic response, such as anxiety and other mental health conditions9.. Within this model, Tai Chi would be seen to be a means of restoring and rebalancing the flow of qi within the body, thereby potentially allowing our system to complete the interrupted cycle and return the system to its normal resting or ready state – like hitting a reset button for the heart and mind. Though there is little clinical evidence to support this theory, more research into this area is being conducted.
Whatever the underlying reasons, it seems there is no doubt that regular Tai Chi practice can have great benefits to a person’s mental and emotional well being. The best way to determine if it can have these benefits for you is to try for yourself.
- World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-disorders, accessed 6/13/2023
- Center for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm, accessed 6/13/2023
- Harvard University T. H. Chan School of Public Health: https://chds.hsph.harvard.edu/quantifying-the-global-cost-of-mental-disorders/, accessed 6/13/2023
- Esch, T. et al. (2007). Mind/body techniques for physiological and psychological stress reduction: Stress management via Tai Chi training – a pilot study. Medical Science Monitor, 13(11): 488-497.
- Zhu, D. et al. (2018). Long-term effects of Tai Chi intervention on sleep and mental health of female individuals with dependence on amphetamine-type stimulants. Frontiers in Psychology, 9: 1476-87.
- Sprod, L. et al. (2011). Health-related quality of life and biomarkers in breast cancer survivors participating in tai chi chuan. Journal of Cancer Survivorship, 6: 146-154.
- Zhang, L. et al. (2012). A review focused on the psychological effectiveness of Tai Chi on different populations. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012: 1-9.
- Yao, Y. et al. (2021). The effect of Tai Chi Chuan on emotional health: potential mechanisms and prefrontal cortext hypothesis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2021: 1-12.
- Duncan, A. D. and Kain, K. L. (2019). The Tao of Trauma: A Practitioner’s Guide for Integrating Five Element Theory and Trauma Treatment. North Atlantic Books.