This article appeared in Anxious Times, the magazine of Anxiety UK. The link to their site is on our Links page.

Most people have heard of tai chi's benefits for physical health, but what you may not have heard is that it can also be beneficial for improving mental health too.

I used to suffer from such severe anxiety that when I first started tai chi, it was six months before I could speak to the chief instructor. At that time I used to find it hard to practise anything because I was so stressed about being watched and that stress increased exponentially if any one of my instructors gave me the most gentle helpful hint to improve – all I could take in was how I wasn't perfect.

I persisted with tai chi because I felt myself getting healthier physically (after years as a couch potato). After a while I began to notice that I was becoming calmer and more able to take in the gentle corrections from my kind and patient instructors. I was still very anxious, but not anything like the same stress-out level of anxiety.

Now, seven years later I am a happy confident person not only in tai chi but also in my life generally. How did tai chi help me achieve such relief and freedom from anxiety? Well, it's a whole host of things that tai chi gives you, working together:

  • focus on the physical actions of the body
  • achieving something through persistence

  • staying in a new environment through persistence

  • being in control of your own progress

Let's take those one at a time:

Focus on the physical actions of the body

Mental health conditions are all worsened by the relentless spiral of negative thoughts, reinforcing each other and taking you downwards. Having something physical to focus on (e.g. how to place your feet correctly) means that your mind is taken out of the thoughts and into the physical focus instead.

Since learning tai chi involves learning one correct placement (of foot or spine or hand, etc) after another, this means your mind has a series of physical things to focus on in sequence. Practising just a short small sequence of movements over and over is necessary to learn them with your body as well as your mind, so it's integral to tai chi to be taught how to learn in this way.

This means your mind is getting regular and intense practise in how to focus on body parts rather than thoughts, taking you out of that negative spiral of thoughts and giving you some much needed relief from them.

Achieving something through persistence

When I started tai chi, I had no idea that it was even possible for me to be good at any sport; I just wanted to do something unthreatening.

Just doing the movements in the tai chi class then practising them at home on my own meant I was feeling physically better, so I kept on with it. My instructors kept telling me to relax. It didn't matter if I got it wrong. What mattered was that I should keep trying as I was learning how to learn.

I took ages to learn any small sequence while some others powered ahead. But as my instructors all told me, everyone needed to learn at their own pace and all that mattered was trying to practise with a sincere heart. After a long while I had learnt my way through 54 of the 108 sequences. This was amazing to me. I'd always had such a negative self-image with regard to sporty achievements. I can't begin to describe the feeling of achievement!

Persistence is the key to progress and progress means you feel better about yourself; then your anxiety about yourself lessens. Just stick with it and don't worry about where you are and one day you will have achieved something you thought was not possible at all.

Staying in a new social environment through persistence

As I mentioned earlier, I couldn't talk to my chief instructor for months on end at the beginning. I also had severe anxiety about talking to others in a social situation. But talking to people wasn't actually required. I could just drink tea and listen to others in the tea breaks. I was just one of the students, among all of us just sitting there, some drinking tea, some chatting, all being accepted as being part of the class.

Just continuing to going there (doing my training, drinking tea, becoming part of the group), over time helped me relax. After a while, I learnt how to talk with the other students. We all had the tai chi to talk about, so no artificial topic was needed.

These days, I can crack a joke, or sit quietly listening to others, or rabbit on myself. I am no longer anxious about being in company. Tai chi helped me relax in a non-threatening environment, helping me see that I was accepted for being myself and didn't have to do anything to justify being present. This helped me feel far less anxious in social situations and far more relaxed generally.

My previous anxieties about whether people liked me or how I could make them accept me have all gone, as I began to realise what mattered was how I could feel more relaxed in myself, for myself.

Being in control of your own progress

What's really great about tai chi is that it doesn't matter what the pace of your progress is because there is no end goal. All you need to do is concentrate on what you're learning at that moment; to concentrate on learning that action; on repeating it over and over again; to take it into your body memory as well as your mind memory. You are told quite clearly from the start to relax into learning just what you're on then and not to even think about getting to some goal.

I used to worry a lot about people watching my lack of progress, but as this message was reinforced over weeks and months, I started to stress less about my very slow learning and began to relax more. It was a lovely feeling once I understood it was perfectly fine for me to be slow, to be a klutz, to be unfit. And to my surprise, as I relaxed about being this way then I began to slowly improve; to slowly become less klutzy; to slowly become less unfit; to slowly become able to take in more.

My instructors told me, “Don't worry about where you are. Don't compare yourself to others. Just look at how far you've come since you started. Compare yourself now to yourself then and be happy at your progress”. This is what I tell my students myself these days too because as you relax into celebrating yourself now and then, you feel much better about yourself; you lose all that performance anxiety and you can just be happy about what you're doing. Then one day you’ll notice with surprise how far you've come – all due to relaxing into being yourself.

Relax and you will progress at your own pace. It's the relaxation that helps you achieve. Stressing about trying to achieve goal slows down your progress. Practise for the sake of practising and you will get there without worrying about getting there!

In summary:

Tai chi teaches you to relax about being yourself, about being in various situations, about your progress – about everything really.

As you learn tai chi you learn about being kind to yourself, then you become even more relaxed and can take in more, both in tai chi and in everyday life.

Your feeling of self-worth can increase through tai chi and this helps you relax into accepting help rather than being anxious about needing it or about what people think of you.

Relaxation is the key to tai chi and learning tai chi means learning how to relax. Learn how to enjoy your life more; how to enjoy the moments, one at a time, until those moments turn into longer chunks and you can relax into being yourself, for yourself.