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Can Qigong Help Mental Health Problems?

Written by Beth Holloway, RN, M.Ed
2022-05-04

Qigong is a traditional Chinese practice of using movements, breathing, and meditation to increase the flow of energy through the body. By doing so, it’s believed that it improves overall health and wellbeing.

Before exploring qigong, you might wonder how to pronounce it. Although the English language doesn’t have all of the sounds found in Chinese Mandarin, the pronunciation is close to “chee-kung”. Say it a few times. Have you got it? Learning how to say Qigong, might be the hardest part of practicing it.

Read on for details about qigong and what it can do to help support mental health. You’ll find answers to the following:

What Does the Word Qigong Mean?

The term qigong is made up of two words - Qi and Gong. In Chinese, qi means “vital energy” or “life force.” Gong means “sustained practice.” Depending on the translation, the meaning of each word may be somewhat different.Together, Qi and Gong - Qigong -  is described as “energy practice” or “cultivating energy”. Just as you may “cultivate” your garden plants, qigong allows you to “tend to” or enhance your inner vitality and energy.

What is Qigong?

Qigong is an ancient practice that is part of traditional Chinese medicine. Qigong is not one thing. It is an umbrella term that includes many different forms and techniques.The practice of qigong includes a combination of body movements, deep breathing, and meditation. The Chinese have practiced it for centuries to enhance their health and improve their longevity.

What is Medical Qigong?

One type of qigong is called medical qigong. It is the type of qigong that Goodpath offers. Medical qigong focuses on improving both physical and mental health.According to the American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia (AOBTA), medical qigong includes a variety of therapeutic techniques. It involves breathing exercises, meditation (e.g. guided visualization), and body movements to encourage health and balance.

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional medicine, in general, is based on knowledge and beliefs that develop over generations. It is associated with a particular culture or place. It may also be referred to as “folk medicine.” In some regions, traditional practices may be more common than conventional or Western medicine.Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is one example. Others are traditional African medicine, traditional Korean medicine, and traditional Indian medicine (also called Ayurveda).Traditional methods are based on beliefs that are very different from Western medicine theories - Western medicine is the type taught in most medical schools and generally practiced in the United States.Qigong is one of the traditional Chinese medicine techniques. Herbal remedies and acupuncture are two others.

What are the Principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine?

The main principles of TCM are Yin-Yang and Five Phases.You may have heard of yin and yang - the negative/dark side is yin and the positive/light side is yang. Yin-yang together refers to the balancing of the two forces. These two sides may be out of balance.

The Five Phases or Elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The phases also balance each other. Like yin-yang, the five phases may be out of balance.

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How Does Qigong Work According to Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Imbalances of yin-yang and the five phases affect your Qi - your vital energy or life force. According to TCM, the imbalances block and interrupt the flow of Qi throughout the body. This results in poor health and disease.Qigong, on the other hand, is believed to clear any blockages and improve the flow of Qi throughout the body. Physical movements and other qigong techniques promote the flow of Qi. Doing so lessens disease and improves health.

How Does Qigong Work According to Western Medicine?

Goodpath offers medical qigong, focusing on improving physical and mental health. It combines gentle movement, meditation, and breathing. In Western medicine, the effects of qigong are related to two concepts - the relaxation response and psychoneuroimmunology.The relaxation response explains the effect of meditation on the body. Psychoneuroimmunology describes the relationship between the mind (i.e. mental processes) and body processes, in particular the nervous and immune systems. 

The Relaxation Response

How do you feel when you relax? Regardless of the way you achieve relaxation, you may notice a general “slowing down.” That’s what happens with meditation. The relaxation response explains the effect of meditation practices on the body. Meditation actually slows down brain activity, breathing, and heart rate.

Psychoneuroimmunologic Effect

Psychoneuroimmunology describes the relationship between mental processes like emotions, thoughts, and perceptions and the nervous and immune (disease-fighting) systems. In simpler terms - the way “your mind heals your body.”Putting it all together, medical qigong helps to stabilize your nervous system, supporting your relaxation response, decreasing stress and tension, and improving the way your immune system functions.

Is Qigong Conventional, Alternative, or Complementary Medicine?

Conventional care is also known as Western, modern, or mainstream medicine. Again, it’s what is taught in most medical schools and practiced in the U.S.TCM is non-conventional. It is considered an alternative medicine treatment when practiced without or instead of conventional treatment. When used with conventional care, TCM is considered complementary.Goodpath uses both conventional and complementary practices. Together they are integrative. Integrative care (also called integrative health, integrative healthcare, and integrative medicine) is a combination of conventional (i.e. Western medicine) and complementary medicine.Traditional or non-conventional medicine techniques (like TCM) may become part of complementary or conventional care. Whether or not a treatment is conventional vs. complementary depends on an individual doctor or other healthcare provider's point of view and geographic location (e.g. urban vs. rural; Western U.S. vs. Midwest).

To illustrate:Your therapist in a large healthcare system in Colorado may have incorporated qigong as part of their routine care for anxiety or depression. They don’t think of it as non-conventional and don’t present it to you as such.Your counselor in small-town Pennsylvania may hold the opinion that qigong is complementary (i.e. they don’t see it as part of conventional treatment and refer to it as complementary) and include it aspart of your integrative care. In both situations, you receive a traditional method of care, delivered by a person practicing Western medicine.

Is Qigong Safe?

Qigong is considered a safe form of activity. No side effects have been found. You may have some pain and soreness after qigong, as with other physical activities.

Is Qigong Popular?

Many of us are looking for ways to maintain or improve our health. Many people choose Qigong, among other mindfulness practices, because qigong focuses on simple postures and movements. Most people, regardless of age or fitness, are able to participate.Qigong is popular. The National Health Interview Surveys (NHIS) from 2002, 2007, and 2012 looked at participation in mindfulness practices (Qigong, Tai Chi, yoga, and meditation) among U.S. workers. 12-14% of workers, as well as 9-12% of those unemployed, participated in at least one of these mindfulness practices in the past year!

Qigong vs. Tai Chi vs. Yoga: What’s the Difference?

Qigong, tai chi, and yoga are all ancient mind-body practices that continue to be popular worldwide. All three involve meditation, breathing techniques, body movements, and postures. Both qigong and tai chi have their origins in China, while yoga originated in India.Tai Chi is actually a form of qigong. Since it promotes calmness and balances Qi, improving mental and physical health, it is considered medical qigong.

What is the Evidence Supporting Qigong?

Qigong has been studied as a treatment in many populations and for many conditions. The research is very positive. Qigong has many benefits. It can help you stay healthy and improve the quality of your life. It can also help with mental health problems, as well as many long-term (chronic) disorders.

Does Qigong Help with Anxiety and Depression?

Studies have found that qigong, as well as other TCM practices, can be effective in lessening both anxiety and depression.

Qigong and Depression

There is a lot of ongoing research on qigong and depression. A review of many trials of movement-based meditation, including qigong, tai chi, and yoga showed a decrease in the severity of depression.Multiple studies of qigong have found it comparable to other non-medication treatments for depression (e.g. physical activity like walking). It may also be effective in lessening depression symptoms in those with depression along with other medical conditions (e.g. diabetes, insomnia, or high blood pressure plus depression).In a review of a group of studies involving the practice among women, qigong lessened the severity of depression. Some of the studies looked at patients who had other long-term health problems (e.g. breast cancer).

Qigong and Anxiety

There is also research on qigong and anxiety. A review of many studies of movement-based meditation, including qigong, tai chi, and yoga showed an improvement in the severity of anxiety.In yet another review of studies of qigong’s benefits among women, some with long-term medical disorders, qigong lessened the severity of anxiety.

Does Qigong Help Improve Quality of Life?

What about your “quality of life?” Qigong can decrease stress and improve relaxation, both aspects of optimal physical and emotional well-being, as well as quality of life.A large review of qigong included six trials on its effect on the overall quality of life in various populations. Using standard assessment questions, those participating in qigong had a significantly better quality of life compared to controls.

Does Qigong Help Lessen Sleep Problems?

Qigong promotes relaxation - even without looking at study results, you know that relaxation is necessary for sleep. Looking at six different studies, researchers found qigong improved sleep quality.In another study, people attending a twice-a-week, nine-week qigong program reported less time to fall asleep, better quality sleep, and less daytime fatigue.

Does Qigong Help Lessen Pain?

Qigong may help with lessening your pain. It has been studied in people with pain conditions like neck pain, low back pain, fibromyalgia, and arthritis of the knee, to name a few. The results of the studies were inconsistent - some studies support qigong for pain relief, while others do not. Even so, qigong can help improve mood, sleep, and quality of life - all of which may impact by pain.

Does Qigong Help with Digestive Problems?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Different types of exercise may help your digestive problems. One example is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): according to the American College of Gastroenterology, exercise may help you better manage your IBS.

Although more research is recommended, an analysis of fourteen studies of exercise for IBS (e.g. qigong, yoga, walking) suggested the benefits of exercise.

Qigong, specifically, may be a good choice of exercise. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) combined with qigong helped lessen irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea (IBS-D) symptoms for study patients - more than CBT by itself.

Constipation

Exercise, such as qigong, may also help if you have constipation (i.e. it can help speed up bowel movements). An analysis of nine studies on the effect of exercise on constipation, including two studies of qigong, found exercise to be very beneficial.

Does Qigong Help Support Cognitive Functioning?

Have you thought about how exercise might affect your thinking skills? Practicing qigong does appear to help improve cognitive impairment. One review from China of sixteen studies of qigong’s effect on mild cognitive impairment was positive. When qigong was added to conventional exercise therapy, people with mild cognitive impairment had significant improvements.It is believed that mind-body therapies help lessen cognitive decline in older adults. An analysis of over forty trials offering meditation, qigong, tai chi, or yoga to older adults found this to be true.Meditation and qigong both significantly improved cognitive functioning. Results depended on the length of each session, as well as the frequency and number of sessions.

Does Qigong Help with Substance Use Problems?

The medical community is determined to find ways to help those struggling with substance use problems. Qigong may help.Anxiety and depression are common in those with substance use problems. Although further research is recommended, one review found qigong reduced anxiety and depression in those who have difficulties with substance use (i.e. lessening anxiety and depression helps those with substance use disorders).Another review, with a greater number of studies, also suggested that qigong improved anxiety and depression, as well as quality of life in those with substance use problems.

Does Qigong Help with Other Medical Problems?

As with other exercise and mind-body techniques, qigong may help with many different diseases and conditions. Think about your doctor telling you to “get more exercise,” or, “lower your stress levels” - qigong provides both exercise and stress relief.Some studies examined the effect of qigong on mood occurring alongside certain illnesses, such as depression in a person with cancer or anxiety in a person with high blood pressure. Qigong may help lessen symptoms and improve the mood and quality of life of those with cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart failure.

Does Qigong Help with long COVID?

What about the long-term effects of COVID - or long COVID symptoms? Qigong has been effective in treating symptoms in disorders that are similar to long COVID symptoms. Although they’ve not yet begun, studies of qigong and tai chi for the treatment of long COVID symptoms are planned.One study will look at acupressure and qigong for the treatment of fatigue in long COVID. It’s based on using the two methods to treat fatigue in another disorder - chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CSF/ME).

Goodpath’s Mental Health Program

After reading about the benefits of qigong, you can clearly see why Goodpath’s medical team incorporated the practice into our programs, including our mental health program.Our mental health program is for people with several common mental health conditions. Each of the programs includes mind-body/movement therapies, like qigong, other mind-body techniques, supplements and products, nutritional support, and exercise therapy. Visit our mental health page to learn more or take our assessment to get started.