Tai Chi & Mental Health
When I first returned home from Mosul, Iraq, where I had been working as a private military contractor after my time in the military, I found it very hard to settle down and fit in. A former Royal Marines commando, I had set myself a huge goal early in life and achieved it. My time in Iraq felt like a continuation of my service and it wasn’t until I got married and came home that I realised I had a problem. I never saw a doctor, being invincible I scoffed at the idea I might have PTSD, but the nightmares were real enough and violent, and my regrets and my grief would overwhelm me all too often. I gave up being a landscape gardener after I caught myself pouring my soul out to a robin one morning… lone-working with petrol chainsaws and hedge-cutters with tears streaming down my cheeks wasn’t a great idea! I still don’t know if I had PTSD, but I did have serious issues with my mental health.
Luckily, I discovered Tai Chi. I say “luckily” because a staggering number of other former UK servicemen and women have taken their own lives every year. The total was 89 in 2018. Now I am not saying Tai Chi could have saved any of their lives, obviously that would be crass, but I am saying that it has played a significant part in bringing peace to MY troubled mind. These are the mechanisms by which I believe it achieved this effect.
The thermogenic effects of exercise are well known. As your body becomes warmed by activity you become less stressed naturally (in our climate anyway!). Also learning to do new things with your hands and your feet is satisfying and empowering… but you can get this from music or pottery or painting and many other things. Exercise also releases endorphins which make you feel good. But other forms of exercise are at least as good as Tai Chi for this… maybe even better… so what made Tai Chi help me where other exercises and activities gave me a quick hit of feel good that quickly left?
The oxygenation of my body through diaphragmatic breathing gives me a great sense of well-being. My body and mind feel less stressed physically when the breathing is slow, deep and comes from the diaphragm and not the muscles of the chest, neck and shoulders.
Our mind set and breathing are closely linked… as anyone who has ever experienced an anxiety attack will confirm.
Our skeletons have optimal positions. Tai Chi attempts to inculcate optimal structure. Our bodies are trying to heal themselves… when we adopt our strongest inherent posture we can relax the muscles, let go and let the body get on with healing itself unimpeded.
The looseness (Song) required by Tai Chi requires you to deliberately let go of muscular tension. This relaxation of the body also impacts on your emotional state, and vice versa… the impediments to looseness may seem physical, but in my case most of them had deeper roots in my memories.
The mindfulness aspect of Tai Chi practise trains you to control your thoughts. Even for beginners, learning something new requires a level of focus that takes your mind away from its usual haunts and asks it to attend to the present. Later on, this is still true, and the more you train it the stronger your ability to control it becomes.
Combining mindfullness with the looseness, verticality and breathing I am now at a stage where I can access a difficult memory, anticipate changes to my physiology and as they start to happen let it go. Where before a difficult memory made me tense up, my pulse and breathing quicken, my mouth dry etc… I can now use this mechanism in reverse… I use my body to show my mind that I CAN let go! This did not happen overnight!…
As a former comrade put it “we peaked too early in life mate”. I felt that way too for a long while. Now, while I am immensely pleased to have served my country and to have earned my Green Beret as a young man, I no longer allow this to define me. My Tai Chi practise has brought me squarely into the present, given me new goals and identity such that my picture of success is no longer in the past, and my failures, regrets and sorrow can no longer dictate my future and how I treat others. I was not surprised to learn that Tai Chi was created by another military combat veteran… Chen Wang Ting. (Chucks up a salute!)