Tai Chi Battles Depression
Three months of practicing the Chinese martial art of tai chi led to significantly reduced symptoms of depression in Chinese-Americans.
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According to the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association, tai chi developed in 12th-century China. Practitioners incorporate motion, meditation, and deep breathing; the simplest forms have 13 movements, while more complex styles can have dozens.
This ancient practice is getting attention in 2017 with a study from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), after it has shown that 12 weeks of tai chi can significantly reduce symptoms of depression. “While some previous studies have suggested that tai chi may be useful in treating anxiety and depression, most have used it as a supplement to treatment for other medical conditions, rather than patients with depression,” wrote Dr. Albert Yeung, of the Depression Clinical and Research Program in the MGH Department of Psychiatry, lead author of the report. It was especially noteworthy because the study was done among Chinese-American members of the Boston communities. “Finding that tai chi can be effective is particularly significant because it is culturally accepted by this group of patients who tend to avoid conventional psychiatric treatment,” wrote Yeung.
The group study group was recruited through ads offering tai chi for stress reduction. They had mild to moderate depression and were not undergoing any other psychiatric treatments. They were fluent in either Cantonese or Mandarin, and had no current practice of tai chi or other mind-body interventions.
Participants were divided into three groups: one received 12 weeks of tai chi instruction and practice. They did twice weekly tai chi classes, plus thrice weekly at-home practice. Then there was an active control group who received educational sessions on stress and mental health and a passive control “waitlist” group who were simply assessed during and after the study. (Members of both those latter groups, by the way, were able to join free tai chi classes after the study was over, and were informed that they would be able to do so at the beginning of the study.)
After 12 weeks, the tai chi group had significantly better improvement in depression symptoms than the other two groups. Dr. Yeung says that this study could lead down many promising paths. One, it could be a way to treat Chinese and Chinese American patients, who may be reluctant to visit mental health practitioners. He suggests that more study can be done to see if tai chi is as effective for other racial and ethnic groups. If it does, it could address an overall shortage of mental health care professionals.
Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.