With our constantly changing, fast and bustling lives, we all get stressed. Stress has been our tool to survive threats that endanger our lives such as wild animals hunting us. We feel stress and the blood in our body rushes into our extremities so our muscles can act optimally when we need act or run to safety.
With all our technology and modern conveniences, we face minimal life or death dangers these days. We should not need to feel as stressed anymore. Instead, stress occurs when we have to slam on the breaks of our vehicle to avoid an accident. With so many fewer life or death situations in our typical day, why do we still feel stress?
What is Stress?
Stress is merely a physiological response to what we perceive as life or death situations. Without real dangers such as being the dinner of a predator up the food chain, how is it that we get stressed via a mechanism designed to warn us of life or death situations?
With all our modern technologies, we have learned to be impatient and require perfection. We want our food delivered within minutes with drive thru fast food. When we do not get our drive thru coffee in minutes, we get impatient and stressed. When our computer or internet does not work or runs slowly, we get impatient and stressed.
The problem is that when we get stressed our body sends our internal resources to our muscles so we can fight or flee. In doing so, it also disables those things we need to rest and recover such as our digestive, immune, and reproductive system to conserve energy. Then because we see everything in our life as an apparent danger, we are constantly in a state of alert. Our cortisol levels are high, our daily systems are shut down, and we begin to have stress related illnesses.
Here are some changes that happen to our bodies when we are suffering from stress:
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle tension and pain
- Increased aggression
- Reduced metabolism
- Impaired immune system
- Mental fatigue
The Impact of Stress on Our Health
When our built-in survival mechanism to feel stress over our daily inconveniences gets activated regularly throughout the day, it is too much for our bodies. When our fight or flight responses are activated regularly, we often forget to breathe as we try to ride out whatever is stressing us instead of slow and deep diaphragmatic breathing which leads us to a resting and relaxed state.
Many studies have shown there is a likely link between stress and illness. Prolonged stress can negatively affect our health physically, emotionally and mentally. Signs and symptoms can present themselves in the form of:
- Muscle aches and pains
- Frequent colds
- High blood pressure
- Heart diseases
- Skin conditions
- Sleep problems / insomnia
- Lack of focus or concentration
- Irritability or lack of anger control
How to Reduce the Effects of Stress & Why Tai Chi
The themes for reducing stress are common amongst the professionals that we all need exercise, relaxation and mindfulness or in other words, meditation. In addition to these factors, we also need to be sure to get enough sleep, ensure proper nutrition and nurture a strong social support network. There are many activities that can provide a good work out or offer relaxation or gives you an opportunity to practice mindfulness, but it is difficult to find something that offers all three at once. Tai Chi does exactly that.
Tai Chi as a Work Out
A good work out or exercise allows us to attain proper physical fitness so we don’t experience the stress of a poorly functioning body. Cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) is the capability of our body to carry oxygen to our muscles and the ability of the muscles to use the oxygen. When our body gets adequate oxygen, then we have good health and we do not get physical stress which adds to the negative effects of stress.
With Tai Chi’s movements, it strengthens our core muscles, builds our lower body muscles and stretches / strengthens our joints which increase our circulation. By the end of a 20 minute form, we are feeling warm and toasty as if we have just finished a good high aerobic activity. Yet, it is gentle enough to be an exercise for those with heart conditions, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions often associated with high stress.
Tai Chi for Relaxation
The art of tai chi has people utilizing their core body muscles to achieve proper posture and alignment of the body. When we have good posture, we know that we do not get the aches and pains in our muscles. That is because, a good posture means a balanced use of our muscles and the opposing muscle that keeps us upright and balanced. Our muscles are used at their optimal length and strength so that they are neither atrophied nor tense but they are relaxed.
In addition, tai chi also involves our conscious use of the dantian or diaphragm for breathing deeply into our body. When our body is able to inhale deeply and exhale slowly, we activate our body’s parasympathetic nervous system which is our body’s mode for resting, relaxing and recovery. The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system which kicks into gear when we get stressed and go into flight or fight mode. When we practice tai chi regularly, our body goes into a rest and relax state regularly making it beneficial for maintaining our health.
Tai Chi is Moving Meditation
When practicing tai chi, the movements, transitions, postures and breathing are all consuming tasks that make it impossible for us to think about anything else. This all-encompassing focus on the activity at hand can be difficult for some people to do without an activity as engaging as tai chi. This is why Tai Chi is often described as “Moving Meditation”.
Mindfulness or meditation is just that simple. It is to focus on nothing else except the task at hand. It may seem simple because it is practiced slowly but when you are focused on practicing tai chi, your mind will be fully engaged with all that tai chi demands of us physically, mentally as well as spiritually. But, why is it so important that we get our minds focused on what is directly in front of us?
Staying focused on the now or meditation allows us a form of mental hygiene. Mental hygiene allows us to avoid getting anxious. The stressed or anxious mind is the one that creates too many distracting thoughts. When we have too many thoughts, our mind places too great an emphasis on the importance of even the smallest details which are of low or no consequence. By placing our efforts on inconsequential thoughts or concerns, we keep triggering our flight or fight mechanisms and remain in a state of stress. To clear our minds regularly with mindfulness and meditation, we are able to regain perspective on our lives and differentiate or identify the noise from the substance of our thoughts. We remain calm in the face of difficult situations and avoid stress.
De-Stress with Tai Chi
If you are looking to find an effective way to relieve stress on all three fronts of exercise, relaxation and mindfulness, try out Tai Chi. Regardless of your current lack of fitness level or athletic prowess, people find tai chi equally rewarding in their own way as well as socially rewarding. Join us for a trial class to experience the benefits of Tai Chi.