Saturday, November 3, 2012

Using Tai Chi to Deactivate the Fight-or-Flight Response


Our bodies have a physiological reaction to danger called the fight-or-flight response. When we are facing danger, our body reacts to help us survive. This is also called the sympathetic nervous system. Several involuntary responses follow, such as the release of stress hormones, increased heart rate and blood pressure, the activation of our immune system, etc.

Under normal circumstances, our bodies respond as needed and everything returns to normal after a time. However, a difficulty appears when we realize that our body responds the same way whenever we face emotional stress, like anxiety, anger, fear, or any other destructive emotion. We all face chronic stress because of the way we live our modern lives. Long-term chronic stress causes damage to our bodies because the stress hormones contribute to chronic illnesses like hypertension, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and many other illnesses.

Fortunately, our bodies have a complementary physiological response called the relaxation response. This is also known as the parasympathetic nervous system. The relaxation response calms down our bodies and minds to help us deactivate the fight-or-flight response and reverse the effects of stress.

Breathing is something that we do both voluntarily (conscious) and involuntarily (unconscious). We can use conscious breathing to affect the parasympathetic nervous system. Since the parasympathetic nervous system works to counteract the sympathetic nervous system, we can use conscious breathing to control, or even to reverse, the effects of stress on our body.

Tai chi is a nearly perfect way to practice conscious breathing. Tai chi can use abdominal breathing. Abdominal breathing is a breathing technique that helps you learn to calm the mind and body.

To practice abdominal breathing, start in a normal wu ji posture. Take several deep breaths with long exhales to allow your mind and body to relax. Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen just below your belly button. Pay attention to how your hands move while you are breathing. Inhale through your nose and consciously expand your abdomen. Exhale through your mouth and contract your abdomen. You should notice that your right hand (on your chest) barely moves. Your left hand (on your abdomen) should move much more. After you become comfortable with this technique, you no longer need to place your hands.

Breathing is also part of "Sinking the Qi". The slow, continuous movements of tai chi lead to relaxed breathing. The rhythmic yin-yang movements can be used to match the inhales and exhales of abdominal breathing. The mental focus required by tai chi helps us develop a mind-body connection and awareness. This all leads to teaching our mind and body to relax and calm down in order to counteract the fight-or-flight response.

© 2012 Eric Borreson