Dealing with stress and anxiety and improving mental health
After trying Tai Chi for the first time, a few students commented that they could feel the tension drain from their bodies. Chronically tense shoulders had begun to drop, shallow breathing had started to become deeper and slower and the body felt as if the blood was flowing freely, leaving them feeling pumped. How can these slow gentle exercises produce such a change within 45 to 60 minutes? These people were clients of the Canberra Hospital unit for drug and alcohol issues. For some of them, it was the first time that they had ever felt so calm and relaxed.
Tension and fear are all part of the fight-or-flight response. We are all affected by it in some way. Some of us have had major traumas in our lives and they have frightened us deeply. Others might have a constant level of anxiety or discontent. All these experiences trigger the fight-or-flight response. It is a very complex issue and it affects us all differently. In my mind, we can all benefit from the gentle Tai Chi exercises, even though at first they don’t seem to make much sense.
Finding calmness and clarity in our lives is essential. It uplifts everything we do and makes life more enjoyable. Some people may suffer from serious mental illnesses. Fortunately, there are more and more effective treatments available in the form of drugs. These are necessary for those who cannot control their conditions. Yet, even if they try some of the warm-up exercises from Tai Chi, they will probably experience some relaxation or calm.
In Tai Chi and Qigong (energy cultivation) practices, the first requirement is calming the mind which in turn relaxes the body. In our classes, we take students through a warm-up sequence that runs for about 15 minutes, then we go into a relaxation and qigong segment that lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. When you have finished the warm-ups and relaxation exercises, you will feel relaxed and energised. As you go through the above series of movements, the mind and body are affected on a deep level. These exercises have the power to change your mood or state. When you are feeling anxious, it’s hard to think your way out of it. However, when you start the movements, you will notice that your thinking begins to slow down and you naturally start to feel better. When the body feels better, the mind naturally follows.
Life is complicated. Many things are happening and it is impossible to control them all. However, we can learn to manage our thoughts and responses. The best way that I have discovered to do this is through training. It makes you happier, more resilient and gives you clarity. If you are feeling anxious, simply take a few deep breaths. Maybe count 1 to 10 on the out-breath. This will slow you down and ground you at the moment. Then look at what you are thinking. Are you telling yourself that you are not good enough or some other negative beliefs? Remember how amazing our life is! We are on this small planet in a huge universe. We probably won’t be here again so don’t allow anything or anyone stopping you from enjoying this moment.
From the Taoist perspective, we are all seen as a part of nature. We all belong. We are all special in our way just like all the other creatures on the planet. We are all part of the Tao (the Way). When you realise this, you will feel connected and comforted. Another useful concept is the yin yang theory. This can help us see the interconnectedness of all things, even though at first they appear separate and different. Life is fluid; things are changing. If we hold onto things, we may lock our minds and become stuck in a moment that no longer exists. Learning to flow and change can give us greater freedom without the need for certainty. Uncertainty can also be seen as an adventure with new possibilities.
When you have a doubt about yourself or if you have done something that leaves you feeling unhappy, you need to look at it. It is easy to lose perspective about ourselves and we can become overly negative. This attitude doesn’t solve anything. Of course, it is natural to do this but don’t dwell on it. Try to look at the bigger picture. As you grow in life, you will see things differently. For example, if you visit China, you will be amazed at the great numbers of people and the amount of wealth. If you compare it with where you live, you may feel discontented. However, you could see your country as a place of great opportunity and realise that your peaceful part of the world is just as good with all that it has to offer. Being human means that we are always looking for something more. However, we can’t have everything. Even if we could, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy it all. Through our training, we learn to know ourselves better. We begin to realise what is important in our lives. We only have so much time available in which to enjoy the important things. Let’s not waste our time on the non-essentials.
When you meditate or practise Qigong or Tai Chi, you are learning to calm your mind which seems to be more like a wild horse. At first, the horse won’t listen to you; it runs everywhere. If you can befriend it instead of wanting to dominate it, the horse will get to know you and trust you. The more patience you have around it, the more it will trust you. Eventually, you can sit on its back and then ride it. The horse may throw you or complain about your trying to ride it but slowly it will become your companion. Eventually, you and the horse are one. You ride it with ease; the horse understands you and you understand it. This is how we tame the mind. Gradually, the unruly mind becomes more balanced, less excitable and more stable. The more we practise, the deeper our experience of calm becomes and the more relaxed our body feels. This leads to greater happiness and less fear. We learn to flow through life instead of fighting all the way. We consume less energy and make more friends. This leads to a more contented and happier way of living.