How Tai Chi can help ease PTSD symptoms

How Tai Chi can help ease PTSD symptoms

Many people practice the ancient Chinese art of tai chi to find a sense of balance in body and mind. The health benefits of this ‘moving meditation’ can include more energy, stronger muscles, reduced inflammation and even better heart health. But did you know it can also help ease the symptoms of PTSD?

A brief intro to tai chi

Maybe you’ve seen groups of people in the park practising slow, gentle movements, flowing from one position to the next (sometimes giving the impression that they’re holding an imaginary ball!). They were probably doing tai chi.

Tai chi is a whole-body approach, combining meditation and deep stretches using a full range of motion. The movements tend to be circular, performed with your muscles relaxed your mind focused on how you feel physically. They’re often named after animal movements, such as “white crane spreads its wings”, or marital arts actions, like “box both ears”.

As with yoga, research has linked tai chi with improvements in mental health. The meditative movements can reduce anxiety and depression and induce a state of peaceful relaxation – this focus on being able to ‘manage your mind’ really helps people with PTSD control their intrusive thoughts, memories and emotions. It makes sense that this might also aid PTSD recovery, and in the last few years, studies have confirmed this is the case.  

How can tai chi aid PTSD recovery?

The symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person, but can include reliving the traumatic experience through frightening flashbacks and nightmares, hypervigilance, numbing behaviours, and difficult emotions, among others.

Common treatments for PTSD usually start with watchful waiting, then may include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), as recommended by NICE. But there are a host of complementary therapies that can ease symptoms and aid recovery. Tai chi might be a great option if you or a loved one is looking for ways to manage symptoms.

Research suggests that tai chi can help manage intrusive thoughts, improve concentration, and reduce hyperarousal – this form of moving meditation has a deep, calming effect on the nervous system. The brain becomes quieter and the mind clearer. By calming the body and mind, tai chi can be a great tool to cope with stressful situations and react in a more measured way to stimulus and triggers. People with PTSD who practice tai chi report feeling more relaxed, able to enjoy life again and find they increase both their energy and their ability to cope with stressful situations. They begin to enjoy people and activities that they had begun to avoid. Training in these arts gives practitioners a way to maintain healthy connections within themselves and with the outside world.

Tom McNicholas is former Vietnam veteran and retired police officer affected by PTSD, who now teaches tai chi:

“From the first movement, there was almost an audible click in my mind. It was the first time I felt in control in months, just from that simple movement. I was hooked… It’s given me a tool to manage [the PTSD]. At nights, if I’m struggling to sleep, I can visualise the first move and ten minutes later I’m asleep.”

Gulf veteran Shaun Folds also noted, “I had no idea what it was about but I wanted to give it a try. The session was led by Lesley Roberts ( Lifestyle Tai Chi) taking us through a warm up and then teaching us the first moves of the 18 movement Shibashi Qigong and finishing off with some seated meditation. I had no idea what was going on and just followed the exercises, but I distinctly remember afterwards being so relaxed inside that I fell asleep in my room. It was my first experience of abdominal breathing which I felt a calming effect and to add to this I noticed tension and pressure which I felt in my head had reduced quite a bit.  I carried this on during my stay and took part in these sessions on future visits. It became clear that I felt an improvement both mentally and physically from taking part in these sessions.

Anyone who has experienced any kind of trauma often finds themselves being a part of a vicious circle with the feelings of being stressed not only starting to affect the mind but also causing physical ailments in the body.  In my case Joint Pains, Chronic Fatigue, Asthma, Headaches etc was triggered off by the onset of stress.  I never substituted my NHS treatment but instead used Tai Chi alongside it. I found this a very useful strategy for me to move forward as I had to emanate from this circle and break the chain.

When the symptoms of my PTSD were at their worst I would find myself suffering panic attacks in crowded places along with having regular nightmares and flashbacks,. To add to this I would panic at the slightest loud bang and even to this day I am not fully comfortable around fireworks as they have a different meaning to me. I always remember being in a local supermarket and panicking as I felt trapped and surrounded by trolleys. After attending the local PTSD clinic for treatment I was given coping strategies by the Doctor to help me including having elastic bands around my wrists so when I felt I was start to panic the twanging of the bands would have a grounding effect making me realise I was there. I was also told to do deep breathing and focus on something else to ground me. When you think about it, that is what we do in Tai Chi. After mastering the external movements we then look inside of ourselves and focus the mind and breathe which in turn roots ourselves.  This is what I have learned to do more over the years through my development and practice of Tai Chi and Qigong.”

Tempted to try tai chi?

Besides the mental and physical benefits, tai chi is also a very accessible therapy. It’s inexpensive, doesn’t require equipment and you can do it on your own or in a class, indoors or outdoors. The movements are easy to grasp, you don’t need to be super fit, and you don’t need to get down on a mat or learn complicated and challenging poses. Why not give it go?

Classes usually involve a brief warm up and reminder of the principles of tai chi, then the movements themselves, followed by breathing and relaxation. It’s very low impact, meaning it’s safe for most people to practice every day.

LiveStrong offers these simple moves to try:

 

There are a number of warm-up exercises you can do before beginning your practice. Warming up can get your focus, intent and breathing on track before you get into your basic tai chi moves. These warm-ups include:

  • Head rolls: gently circle your head in one direction, then the other while breathing deeply
  • Simple stretch: bending down to your toes and slowly coming back up with your hands on your hips
  • Shoulder rolls: arm circles with your arms stretched out to the sides
  • Picking fruit: standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and reaching upward
  • Knee circles: standing with feet together, knees slightly bent and hands on knees as you circle your knees around together
  • Hip rolls: standing with feet shoulder-width apart, hands on hips, and circling your hips as if you were hula hooping

Then Try These Tai Chi Moves for Beginners

Move 1: Warrior & Scholar

  1. Put your feet together and relax your hands at your sides.
  2. Take a breath in while bending your knees and sinking down, left hand flat and right hand balled up in a fist.
  3. Continuing to inhale, cover your right fist with your left hand and lift up.
  4. Come to a straight-legged stance.
  5. Exhale, release and sink back down.

Move 2: Brush the Knee

  1. Begin this move in a T-stance.
  2. Lift one hand up, palm pacing front.
  3. The opposite hand is in front of the body, palm facing downward.
  4. As you bring one foot forward, twist your body at the waist and push your raised hand forward, while putting the opposite hand down.
  5. To finish, circle your arms back to starting position.
  6. Exhale on the push with the top hand and inhale on the circle back.

Move 3: Part the Horse Mane

  1. Bring both hands in one on top of the other with a space in the middle, palms facing each other, as if you’re carrying a ball.
  2. Shift your weight to whichever foot is on the same side as the top hand. So if your right hand is on top, shift your weight to your right foot.
  3. Bring the opposite leg in front and as you shift your weight to the front leg, move the bottom hand forward as if you’re throwing a Frisbee.
  4. The other hand should come back and down to “rest on a large dog’s head.”

To find an in-person class, ask at your local gym or community centre, search online, or visit the Tai Chi and Qigong Union for Great Britain website. If you’d prefer to practice at home, you can look for classes on YouTube.

It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.

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