In Search of Tai Chi & Qigong Solutions for Combat Veterans’ Mental Health
by Chris Cooper
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I am a mental health counselor and have been working with U.S. combat veterans from the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2012. I was drawn to Tai Chi and Qigong (hereafter TCQ) a number of years ago, but never stuck with it. The classes I attended did not keep my interest enough to go for more than once or twice each time. I wanted more than they offered and experimented with DVDs and books. These ended up on the shelves until not long ago when I began a late-in-life career as a mental health counselor.
In 2017, I was fortunate to receive help after contacting the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association (ATCQA). A representative of the ATCQA connected me with Gene Nelson of Empire Tai Chi in Yonkers, NY. Gene is a Tai Chi Master Instructor certified by ATCQA. He has graciously mentored me for six months on my journey to find a TCQ solution for my clients. I expressed my desire to find a program that would be simple, teachable, and immediately accessible. Gene offered me insight that I may never have discovered on my own or possibly even after years of practice.
There is a paucity of research related to the direct mental health benefits of TCQ. I have made a number of observations and would like to propose a direction for research.
An individual who practices TCQ regularly is likely to have a lower mental metabolism, be in the rest-and-digest mode more often, and have low or non-existent levels of stress hormones most of the time. I propose that TCQ be taught to those seeking not just physical fitness, but for those who want to live a more peaceful and healthy mental lifestyle. These students should be taught not just the “how” of TCQ but also the “why.” Researchers could study individuals through a course of TCQ with baseline measurements of the typical vital signs of heart rate and blood pressure at the beginning and throughout the study. Additional measurements may reveal important data. Heart rate variability (HRV), the startle response and qualitative self-reports are all possibilities.
HRV measures the change in time intervals between heartbeats. In general, the more variability between heartbeats, the better. A high HRV measure means the body is functioning at a healthy level of self-regulation which promotes adaptability and resilience. The startle response is the unconscious defensive response to sudden or threatening stimuli. Individuals with challenges such as generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress (PTSD) have an exaggerated startle response.
It is my belief that most individuals, who undertake a practice of TCQ for a specific amount of time per session over a period longer than 3 months, will see improvements in most of the aforementioned measurements. In essence, having a high HRV, a low startle response, a low score on the BAI (indicating lower anxiety) and a high score on the MAAS (meaning a higher level of dispositional mindfulness) indicates a healthy person with a low mental metabolism. This is the promise of Tai Chi and Qigong in mental health care.