New research on how tai chi can help with depression continues to come out. This is great news not only for people suffering from depression but for all of us who deal with sadness, loneliness, or bad emotional reactions to things that are out of our control.
Tai chi is good for depression because it uses physical movements that open our posture, lengthen our breath, improve our mental disposition, and train us to focus on the present rather than past or future events. Tai chi also provides community to reduce symptoms of depression associated with loneliness.
All of us experience low periods from time-to-time and tai chi has to power to get us past them. I think what is missing from the research is an explanation of how the great results they are finding in clinical trials actually work to alleviate the symptoms of depression. I want to take an optimistic point of view here and deep dive into sadness and loneliness to show you what the form can do for you.
The Reason for Sadness and Depression and How Tai Chi Can Help
I am so happy, no, let’s say ecstatic, every time I find a piece of research that backs up this idea:
This is a brave statement.
I know that there are people out there in excruciating pain.
With debilitating diseases.
With DNA they didn’t ask for.
And for me to make a statement like this borders on insulting.
But, nested in this statement is also hope.
Hope that there is either 1) a solution or 2) a reason we are going through whatever it is that we want to stop.
And what I learned about sadness recently is supported by this. There really is truly a reason for sadness and a biological need to experience it. Let’s start with my WHYs and then dig into the research.
Hindsight is a great teacher. It allows us time to reflect unemotionally.
At two points in my adult life I was so distraught over my life situation and in so much pain I could barely function at work. I am fortunate that I can say that I am on the other side of both of those events. But I can also say that I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
In the first event, I suffered through all three years of it and it wasn’t until after that I saw its purpose. Without getting into it, I had been asking for and trying to make change in my life without a lot of progress. A catastrophe gave me immediate change and the energy to move in the direction I needed to. Being honest with you, it wasn’t positive energy. Most sentences stared with “I am sick of…” Nevertheless, change happened.
While I hated that time. I wouldn’t change it because of where it got me.
Pain is a great teacher. It keeps us present.
In the second event, a painful, energy-sapping injury made life extremely difficult. But I couldn’t shake the sense that the first event had a purpose. Although every doctor said there wasn’t much chance for progress and every man my age resorted to surgery or drugs, I hoped that there was something greater at play. And there was. And I met people with different information. And I met men who healed.
I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but I also wouldn’t trade it. I am WAY better for the experience.
Observation is a great teacher. It lets us know we are not alone.
One summer I worked in the county hospital and come in Monday morning after the city’s motorcycle rally. Needless to say, the ICU was packed. I had the distinct privilege of watching a man come out of a coma. He was in bed with a metal halo stabilizing his neck with is worried wife sitting next to him as his leather biker jacket and chaps hanging on the wall. He irrupted into the foulest swearing against his wife that you could ever imagine. It was so bad that a nurse took her outside and asked if she was in an abusive relationship and wanted information about the women’s shelter.
Meanwhile, he took off running down the hall, in his halo, with his catheter dragging along the ground hanging down from under his gown! The nurse called for security and described the violent patient that was fleeing. That’s when the wife said: “Wait! You don’t understand. He’s a preacher! He rides for Jesus!”
How was this possible?
There are 7 “Rancho” levels that a person goes through as they regain consciousness. It begins with a slow return to consciousness and then Level IV is marked by severe agitation and fury. Think about it. If you had to bring a body back from a coma, how would you power the system back up? It appears to me that the body throws all the emotional switches, flooding the body with testosterone and endorphins to really light things up. Think about how much energy you have when you “snap” and are furious.
Again, do we want to be furious? No. But does the body have and use fury for a specific purpose? I think that it does. And that brings us to a potential reason for depression and how tai chi can help. Why are we made to experience it?
A Reason for Depression?
Some really intriguing studies by psychology researcher Joseph Forgas (1994, 2013) showed that there are benefits to mild sadness. Namely, people in a negative state:
- Had better judgement
- Were more discerning about their situation
- Were more motivated to make change
- Remembered details better
- Were more likely to reach out to others and strengthen their social connections
Even in a portion of the experiment where subjects had to decide how much money to give others. Sad individuals gave more. The conclusion was made that sadness also increases empathy. Forgas and others who are excited about this data separate it from two other experiences.
Subjects in the study were determined to have sadness and negativity. There is a level at which an unhappy state becomes all consuming and unproductive. Don’t misinterpret the study to say that all forms of sadness are good or that a depressed person should just see the bright side of things.
Depression turns our concern inward while sadness turns our concern outward.
The Difference between Fear or Anger and Depression
One great difference between fear or anger and depression is the duration. Fear and anger were measured to peak at three minutes where mild depression was measured up to five days.
A conclusion from the studies is that sadness plays an important role in our lives. Our job is to access mild depression by allowing it to occur, observing it, and knowing that it will run its course (5 days tops in its mild form). Thinking about the list of “Sadness Benefits” (doesn’t that sound strange?) above. Why are you being slowed down? What are you meant to acutely remember? What are you supposed to be paying attention to and learning?
Sadness or Mild Depression and Tai Chi
And here is where Tai Chi comes in. Tell me if I am talking about tai chi here or telling you how to cheer up:
Continue moving, putting one foot in front of the other, in the daily patterns you are familiar with. Do not pass judgment. You are doing the best that you can. You have brought all of your experiences into this moment and if you can concentrate on what you are doing, this will be the best you have ever done this. Tomorrow, will be even better. Acknowledge what you are thinking or feeling but see yourself as separate from the thought or feeling.
Tai chi trains us to stay in silent observation of our movements. This is one chief distinction between tai chi and almost anything else – Yoga – standing meditation, sitting meditation… Tai chi asks that you be aware, calm, and observe yourself and surroundings during constant motion. This feels exactly like life to me! I feel that this is also what the studies’ author concluded. We need to see the purpose of sadness, not pass judgement, and let it do its work.
At a philosophical level, Tai Chi asks us to bend our brain and acknowledge or find the opposite that is present in every truth. “I move left to move right.” “An attack is an offering.” “I retreat forward.” Now maybe: Sadness has benefits.
Suffering Under the Illusion of Loneliness
Changes in the world are bringing us face to face with depression caused by isolation, loneliness, and the feeling of being separate. We are social creatures. We thrive when there is connection. Even the most introverted among us bask in the attention of our partner, sibling, or parent. When these connections are reduced, we are often left with a desperate ache to be together. We may even want to reach out to people who we wouldn’t have in normal circumstances. It’s just the idea that the option has been taken away from us that makes us uneasy.
And like with so many of life’s problems, tai chi provide us with some solutions for ways to ease our depression by targeting loneliness. Here is an example:
World Tai Chi & Qi Gong Day
World Tai Chi Qi Gong Day (WTCQD) is held each year on the last Saturday of April at 10:00 am local time, worldwide. The intention of this event is really noble because as each practitioner steps outside at that time and begins their form or meditation practice, a wave of chi (positive energy) is sent around the world. It is also a way to unite all of us that share in the pursuit of these age-old traditions, improving our health, wellness, and our interactions of those around us.
This idea holds significant meaning in times when we are depressed because we are unable to meet, be with loved ones, or are forced into isolation. This brings up significant questions:
Why do we suffer from loneliness?
Are we truly alone?
Is there a way to not feel depressed or miss people when I am isolated?
Even when people are around, why do we sometimes still feel alone inside?
In the community I live in, we are really fortunate because most of the tai chi schools get along really well. Each WTCQGD we meet in the same place. Groups practice individually at first, then we come together and different instructors lead different qi gong or tai chi sets for the whole group. Afterwards, some instructors offer short demonstrations which is always a fun way to see different styles.
You leave feeling happy to have met so many people who share the same interest. Doubly important for those of us that don’t train with a school because we are reminded of how many people from so many different cultures and walks of life are sharing in the same pursuit.
Tai Chi and WTCQD have a greater message to teach us that can carry us through darker times and definitely throughout the year. To best understand how tai chi helps us move past depression we need a better definition of depression to begin with.
Two Different Types of Depression
There is a loneliness we feel when we are separate from others and there is a loneliness that we feel inside when we are not connected. These are different from anxiety which I talk about in a separate article. In this case let’s call these External and Internal Depression.
External Depression – When we are separate from others
It’s hard to deny the loneliness that occurs when others are not physically present. We are truly a-lone-person. It is also easiest to remedy by joining a loved one, calling a friend, or just getting out in public…unless we can’t (global pandemic anyone?).
Adyashanti, in his book Falling Into Grace, offers us another option: to work to not feel this loneliness at all. He does a really great job at distilling down the Buddha’s teachings on suffering by breaking it down into practical terms. Basically:
If you continue to look to interactions with others to not suffer from loneliness, you will be successful most of the time. However, this will take continual effort. What happens when things are out of your control? Such as a divorce, an injury, a job transfer, a virus…
A greater pursuit would be to realize that you are not suffering from being alone. You are suffering from the illusion that you are alone.
You can see that this idea begins to shape itself into a highly metaphysical construct: the idea that we are ONE with everything and ONE with the universe. I get this on an intellectual level but would not begin to pretend that I can manifest this degree of wellness when my emotions are in play.
Thankfully there are much simpler ways to “manifest connectedness” and all it takes is imagination or memory. Thinking through everyone that we are connected with present-past-future, work-family-community diminishes this sense of loneliness. True, sometimes this can sometimes increase the sadness if you miss them, but it doesn’t diminish the connection.
How Tai Chi Reduces Depression Caused by Loneliness
Millions of people across time have learned and progressed through the movements of the tai chi form. Qigong and meditation are even older with some sets having been practiced for 1500 years. Thousands of people are practicing at this very moment that you are reading this. You just need to go outside, or just close your eyes and inhale and exhale to join them. You have put in the hard work to learn your form. You have joined an elite tradition of people spanning several generations. You may even be teaching practitioners that will carry it forward long after you are gone.
So, it is difficult to feel lonely when you concretely understand your role in carrying on this tradition that spans generations and know that your efforts have earned you the right to interact with thousands in this present-day shared experience.
Internal Depression – When we feel on the inside that we are not connected
Depression caused by not feeling connected to anyone stinks. It is standing in the middle of a concert of thousands of people who are having a great time and feeling alone. It is posing for a family picture and feeling that no one beside you has any clue who you actually are. Try explaining this to anyone and it won’t make sense. Yet it hurts.
Here we have the opposite problem, right? We can be in a sea of people or around family members who have known us forever and we describe it with the same words – feeling alone. How can this be?
Back to Adyashanti. Again, I love his writing because it’s practical and leans heavily on Eastern thinking to help us come up with a permanent solution. The type of solution that doesn’t just solve a problem but makes the problem irrelevant.
On the inside, we suffer from the illusion that we are our thoughts and that we control our thoughts. This just isn’t true. Our thoughts run on, independent of our control. Their positive or negative nature are out of our control.
Sometimes when people are not allowed their external distractions such as activities or work, they are left with having to confront their thoughts. These can be positive distractions such as exercise or negative ways we might numb ourselves to not have to face more difficult questions. Either way, it is just us and our thoughts. If we see ourselves as our thoughts, we are at the mercy of whether those thoughts are positive or negative.
Again, we have two paths we can take:
We can work to distract ourselves or create positive thoughts. This takes continual effort and only works until it doesn’t. When something out of our control removes the distraction such as an injury that doesn’t allow us to exercise, we are left with our thoughts again.
We can learn to see ourselves as separate from our thoughts so that we can coexist alongside them. This isn’t to say that we judge or change our emotions, we just know that it is an experience we are watching or having, separate from ourselves.
How Tai Chi Reduces Depression Caused by Feeling Unconnected to Others
Tai chi and meditation give us an opportunity to practice functioning along side our emotions and thoughts so that we are comfortable being alone with ourselves when it is out of our control (again, global pandemic anyone!?).We move our body through the familiar sequence of the form and concentrate on our breathing while our mind races on about anything BUT tai chi. This allows us to anchor ourselves in our own physicality as we watch the mind and emotions race on. The physicality of the form’s movements tethers us to what is real, so that we can juxtapose it against our thoughts, which are not.
This is something I really love about tai chi: It both presents us with an understanding of a problem and a solution for how to move past it. It is like the perfect coworker who not only brings issues up but also offers a way to solve it. So…
On the last Saturday of April.
Breathe deeply in and out.
Step out to the left.
And allow your arms to raise up in front of you.
I will be right there by your side.
As will thousands of others. So many practitioners that you can almost be guaranteed that at any moment of any day if you do the form you are not alone.
This is (another!) one of tai chi’s gift to you: You are never alone.
Research on Tai Ch and Depression from Google Scholar and Recent News
Depression is a serious thing and it’s great that tai chi is being recognized for its ability to reduce and alleviate symptoms. Tai chi can be undertaken in conjunction with medically-led treatment but should not replace treatment if you are under the care of a doctor or professional for severe depression. I will share here tai chi depression news articles and the research that supported this article. Share this with your provider or search tai chi and depression on Google Scholar to see some of the amazing clinical work that is underway.
The effects of tai chi on depression, anxiety, and psychological well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Fang Wang, Eun-Kyoung Othelia Lee, Taixiang Wu, Herbert Benson, Gregory Fricchione, Weidong Wang, Albert S Yeung
Forgas, J. P. (1994). Sad and guilty? Affective influences on the explanation of conflict in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(1), 56–68.
Forgas, Joseph P. “Don’t worry, be sad! On the cognitive, motivational, and interpersonal benefits of negative mood.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 22.3 (2013): 225-232.
Continue Learning! : The Science Behind Using Tai Chi for Anxiety and How You Can Benefit