If you’ve ever experienced ongoing stress or anxiety, you know how the effects can invade every corner of your life, health, and wellbeing. Positive stress (i.e., excitement about a project) can make your brain sharper and more resilient, however, chronic stress can weaken your immune system, trigger systemic inflammation, change the structure and function of your brain, and makes you more vulnerable to health issues, mood disorders, and mental illness.
When treating stress and anxiety, Western medicine often turns to psychiatric drugs to tranquilise symptoms and manipulate the balance of neurochemicals (neurotransmitters and biological chemicals that affect the nervous system). Though these prescription medications can have various benefits, they don’t address the root cause of anxiety or stress, address overall health impacts, or equip people with the skills and self-care techniques to recognize, respond, and reduce their effects.
As the societal value of self-care increases, many are seeking to replace or supplement a Western medicine approach with empowering self-care practices — such as Chinese medicine — that can help alleviate symptoms, and reduce the effects of stress and anxiety.
Understanding stress and anxiety through Chinese medicine
Like Western medicine, Chinese medicine views stress and anxiety as a form of imbalance. However, Chinese medicine considers how imbalances equally manifest in the mind and the body, and therefore aims to treat both simultaneously via the meridian system.
Developed in conjunction with Chinese philosophy over 5,000 years ago, the meridian system describes energetic pathways that carry Qi (or “vital energy”) throughout the mind and body. The 12 primary meridians correspond with and originate from one of the body’s vital organs.
Six yin and yang primary meridians course through the arms: the yin meridians of the heart, lungs, and pericardium, and the yang meridians of the small intestine, large intestine, and triple burner. The other six primary meridians course through the legs: the yin meridians of the liver, spleen, and kidneys, and the yang meridians of the gallbladder, stomach, and urinary bladder. The yin meridians run along the inner seam of the limbs, whilst the yang meridians run along the outer seam.
Viewing the mind and body as intertwined, Chinese medicine associates every organ and its meridian with a certain type of emotion, and every illness — physical or mental — from an imbalance of Qi in an organ or its meridian. Whilst an imbalanced organ may be the result of imbalanced emotions, imbalanced emotions may equally arise from imbalances in the organs. For example, Chinese medicine associates the kidneys (yin organ) and bladder (yang organ) with fear. When faced with an extremely fearful situation, a person may lose bladder control and experience urinary incontinence.
Qigong was developed by the earliest practitioners of Chinese medicine to help people restore the flow of Qi throughout the meridian system and reclaim their potential for physical health and mental wellbeing. In addition to the numerous benefits of mindfulness and physical activity, each Qigong exercise specifically targets at least one meridian. With different exercises to support different needs, the Qigong practitioner is empowered to customise their own toolkit to calm stress and anxiety, improve mobility, and cultivate holistic health and wellbeing.
3 easy Qigong exercises to reduce stress and anxiety
Qigong supports the interdependent relationship of the body, breath, and mind through gentle, flowing, yet challenging movements. Each one of the exercises below invites you to move intentionally and breathe deeply, both of which encourage a sense of calm, presence, and clarity. If you only have time for a short break, try one exercise at a time. If time allows, try all three for a more immersive Qigong experience.
- Tiger Climbs the Mountaintop Qigong (Heart, Lung, and Pericardium Meridians)
Part of the 5 Animal Qigong system, Tiger Climbs the Mountaintop Qigong emphasises smooth and circular shoulder movements and metered breathing to dilate the arm meridians and harmonise their combined qualities of joy, grief, healthy relationships, and emotional wellbeing.
How To: Curl your fingers into gentle claws and set your right hand behind your right-side waist. Turn your right foot out to a 45-degree angle, direct your weight into your right leg, and step your left foot forward, keeping your left knee straight and toes pointed forward. If available, bring your spine parallel to the ground as you circle your right arm forward (palm down) and circle your left arm back (palm up). Reach your hands in opposite directions as you keep the back of your neck long and look at the ground. Next, reach your right arm to the right while you reach your left arm to the left. After you’ve reached your maximum stretch, bring your left arm back as you turn your left foot out 45 degrees. Step your right foot forward and circle your arms so your right arm goes back (palm up) and left arm goes forward (palm down). Repeat the same arm actions on this side to complete one repetition. Breathe in when you swing the arms and breathe out as you twist them. Complete 6-10 reps.
- Bear Catches Fish Qigong (Liver, Spleen, and Kidney Meridians)
Bear Catches Fish Qigong uses deep lunges and balance to build a stable foundation, create a sense of calm solidity, and balance the meridians and emotions of the liver (anger) and spleen (worry).
How To: Flex the first joint of each finger into a gentle bear claw. Bend and raise your left knee and rotate your torso 45 degrees to your left. Step your left foot as far forward as you comfortably can, then lunge forward, bending your left knee as your right knee straightens. Draw your torso forward so that it hovers above your left thigh, whilst you reach your left hand to the outside of your left foot and straighten your elbow. At the same time, keep your right elbow bent, so that your right hand is at the same level as your left knee. To come out of the form, press down through your left foot as you rotate your rib cage and shoulders to the right. Slowly draw your torso back to vertical whilst balancing on your left leg. Bend and raise your right knee and repeat the sequence on your right side. Breathe in as you twist and breathe out when going down. Repeat 6-10 reps.
- Dragon Qigong (Kidney Meridian)
Part of the 5 Element series, Dragon Qigong uses deep stances to dilate the leg meridians, building self-confidence, balance, and grounding. Dragon Qigong also incorporates a spinal twist to balance the kidney meridian and its associated emotion of fear, alongside balancing the arm meridians and the emotions with which they’re associated.
How To: From standing, raise your arms to the level of your chest and drop them back down to your waist. Then, position your hands as if holding a ball, in front of your abdomen, with your right hand on top (palm down) and left hand below (palm up). Step your left foot out to the side and point your left toes 90 degrees to the left, then bend your left knee to lunge toward your left side. Rotate your torso to the left as you push your right palm up towards the sky and reach your left hand back, in the direction of your right foot. Look toward your left palm as you take a slow, deep breath. From here, slowly rotate your torso back to the front and return to standing with your feet at least shoulder-width apart. Place the hands as though holding a ball again, with the left hand on top and the right hand below. Repeat this sequence on the right side to complete one round, with the option to complete as many as 3 repetitions.
Your body and mind are intelligent and capable of growth, balance, and change. To learn more about how you can tune into your own innate intelligence through the self-care and wellbeing benefits of Qigong, follow our blog or dive into one of our comprehensive ebooks or online courses.