Tai Chi for Stress Reduction

Tai Chi at Sunrise

Stress is not always a bad thing. When we think about stress, it is useful to separate its beneficial forms, which can be termed eustress, from its detrimental ones, which can be known as distress.

Stress is a reaction of the body towards activities that place some strain on it or which demand a significant effort. When this effort involves working towards a positive end or when it is an effort that is seen as a challenge rather than a problem, it can be beneficial. Eustress can provide motivation, ambition and a competitive spirit. It can spur us on to greater things and it can help to make us more successful. Eustress can be something that people seek out in order to enjoy the challenge. Often the activities that people enjoy most are those that produce eustress, since they offer a sense of accomplishment that comes from working hard to achieve a goal. However, there is a dark side to stress, and this tends to be the more familiar form of the word. Stress, in its negative form as distress, is an effort that produces concern or anxiety, which reduces rather than enhances performance, or which seems to be beyond one’s coping abilities.

Separating eustress from distress is not an objective matter. What seems like an exciting challenge for one person may be a grueling and unpleasant experience for another. It is the way that the individual is affected by a stressor and the approach that they take to cope with it that determines whether something causes eustress or distress.

Tai Chi can provide a form of eustress that many people enjoy. Working to perfect the practice of Tai Chi or taking on new and more challenging forms of the exercise can provide an interesting and exciting challenge for anyone. Those who are physically fit can enjoy the more active and challenging forms of Tai Chi, while people who are less fit, or even those who have been affected by illness, can take on the gentler forms in order to enjoy a level of eustress that is suitable for them.

As well as providing a form of eustress that can offer release and relaxation, Tai Chi can also be used to reduce harmful forms of stress. It can provide a means for people to relax and deal with the negative stresses in their lives. Both exercise and relaxation techniques can help with stress management. Tai Chi can be thought of as a form of moving meditation, offering mental relaxation alongside physical exercise. It can relieve distress through relaxation as well as providing a form of eustress that can help people to manage their stress levels.

Tai Chi combines physical activity, breathing and mindfulness to create a sense of relaxation and calm as it is practiced. As it helps improve physical balance, it can also work to produce an inner sense of calm, peace and balance. Tai Chi is not just about movement, it is also about focusing on the moment. It can provide a challenging form of eustress that requires concentration, focus and physical action. However, it can also help to reduce and manage distress by preventing fixation on anything outside the present moment and by providing a period of calm relaxation as a relief from the rest of the day. The stress management effects of Tai Chi may even provide long-term benefits. (Mayo)

Research into the ability of Tai Chi to reduce negative stress has found significant changes in both the physical factors linked with stress, such as levels of cortisol in the body, and in mental measures of stress in beginners who had been practicing Tai Chi for 18 weeks. People were feeling less distress at the end of the study as well as appearing physically more relaxed. (Esch 2007)

Tai Chi has also proven to be an effective means of stress reduction for patients who are coping with difficult health problems and treatments. Studies have shown beneficial effects on stress levels in patients recovering from cancer (Speca 2000) and people undergoing treatment for HIV (Robins 2006) Practicing Tai Chi was able to help people in these studies to enjoy a better quality of life and to cope better with very difficult situations. Tai Chi was able to help with the reduction and management of distress in real people dealing with real problems, not just in a controlled setting such as in the Esch study, in which the distress was created by showing a film. The impact of stress reduction on patients coping with disease could be particularly important for improving quality of life and helping to make treatments, particularly long-term treatments, more successful.

As well as proving effective for stress reduction in patients undergoing medical treatment, Tai Chi has also been shown to be able to reduce negative stress in other real life situations. A workplace study of nurses found that Tai Chi was an effective way of helping people to cope with a stressful job. (Palumbo 2010)

Tai Chi has been shown in numerous scientific studies to generate various improvements in physical and mental well-being. It can help to manage high blood pressure, to improve quality of life and quality of sleep, and to reduce negative stress. (Kuromoto 2006) Practicing Tai Chi has helped people to manage stressful jobs and situations of many different types. (Wang 2010)

The effects of Tai Chi may derive from the meditative and relaxing aspects of the practice, but it has also been suggested that they could occur as a result of participating in an enjoyable and satisfying activity. (Kuromoto 2006) Tai Chi could help to reduce distress by providing a form of eustress.


Esch, T. Duckstein, J. Welke, J. Stefano, GB. Braun, V. (2007) Mind/body techniques for physiological and psychological stress reduction: Stress management via Tai Chi training- a pilot study. Med Sci Monit 13(11):CR488-497 Available online at http://www.staps.univ-mrs.fr/master_pesap/images/pdf/COURS%20M2/mind-body%20techniques%20for%20physiological%20and%20psychological%20stress%20reduction-%20stress%20management%20via%20tai%20chi%20training%20-%20a%20pilot%20study.pdf Accessed 18/01/2011

Kuramoto, AM. (2006) Therapeutic Benefits of Tai Chi Exercise: Review Research. Wisconsin Medical Journal 105(7):42-46 Available online at http://www.wisconsinmedicalsociety.org/_WMS/publications/wmj/issues/wmj_v105n7/kuramoto.pdf Accessed 18/01/2011

Mayo Clinic: Tai Chi Discover the many possible health benefits. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/tai-chi/SA00087 Accessed 18/01/2011

Palumbo, MV. (2010) Tai Chi for older nurses: A workplace wellness pilot study. Applied Nursing Research. Available online at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WB4-4YV7PXJ-1&_user=10&_coverDate=04%2F13%2F2010&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_origin=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1611599714&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=e7bb5c878da0773ffb3f24cdd149e1e9&searchtype=a Accessed 18/01/2011

Robins, JLW. McCain, NL. Gray, DP. Elswick, RK. Walter, JM. McDade, E. (2006) Research on psychoneuroimmunology: tai chi as a stress management approach for individuals with HIV disease Appl Nurs Res February 19(1):2-9 Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2211366/ Accessed 18/01/2011

Speca, M. Carlson, LE. Goodey, E. Angen, M. (2000) A Randomized, Wait-List Controlled Clinical Trial: The Effect of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Program on Mood and Symptoms of Stress in Cancer Outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine 62:613-622 Available online at http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/cgi/content/abstract/62/5/613 Accessed 18/01/2011

Wang, C. Bannuru, R. Ramel, J. Kupelnick, B. Scott, T. Schmid, CH. (2010) BMC Comlementary and Alternative Medicine 10:23 Available online at http://ukpmc.ac.uk/backend/ptpmcrender.cgi?accid=PMC2893078&blobtype=pdf Accessed 18/01/2011

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