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Karen Caldwell is conducting research on the benefits of practicing tai chi chuan.
Photo by Marie Freeman

Originally published: 2013-01-30 16:12:30
Last modified: 2013-01-30 16:12:30

Tai chi: Ancient discipline may be just what the doctor ordered

by Susan King

Karen Caldwell is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling in the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University. Last November, she and three colleagues received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research on the mental and physical effects of tai chi chuan  (also tai chi or taijiquan) on anxiety and sleep quality in young adults.  

Symptoms of anxiety often appear during adolescence and young adulthood. 

Given the substantial amount of time a person in this age group now spends on a computer or cell phone in private or social situations, a typical "late night" may last until 2  or 3 a.m.  

If an early morning class or job is next on the schedule, a significant adjustment to the body clock must be made over time to compensate for lack of sleep. 

Sleep deprivation can lead to anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension and the feeling of "being in knots," can lead to sleeplessness. 

It's hard to say which comes first.

Caldwell has been studying tai chi for more than 20 years.

"Initially, I studied tai chi chuan for the physical exercise. I was surprised to learn about the importance of relaxation and mental training in the practice," Caldwell said.

In traditional Chinese religion, philosophy and culture, "chi" means "air" or "breath," the energy that animates all living things. 

Closely connected to other Eastern healing arts, such as acupuncture, chi is said to flow in patterns that are closely related to the nervous and vascular systems.

Tai chi is an ancient discipline often described as a synthesis of yoga and meditation that incorporates complete weight shifts, deep relaxation and mind-body integration through mental and visual concentration. Easily arranged in any number of sequences that are characterized by smooth, even transitions, some exercises resemble the natural movements of animals and birds.

When tai chi exercises are executed precisely, a calm and tranquil mind is often a result. 

"I have been teaching tai chi to adults in the community, as well as to college students at Appalachian, for more than 10 years. I frequently hear adult students say how more relaxed and calm they feel after class," Caldwell said.

Tai chi can also improve balance, alignment and posture.

Caldwell said, "In the NIH project, my colleagues and I will conduct a feasibility study to determine the best way to offer instruction in tai chi to young adults."

"Counseling, therapy and prescription medicines are available for treatment of anxiety disorders, but the diagnosis of a mental illness carries a stigma that keeps many young people away from these standard treatments. Exercise is a promising low-cost intervention with minimal negative side effects that is an alternative treatment for anxiety and poor sleep quality," she said.

Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health problems. obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, a fear of public places, are all forms of anxiety. 

Using targeted biomarkers, Caldwell's study will measure the effects of a mindful practice of tai chi on two symptoms of anxiety: uncontrolled repetition of thoughts and persistent physiological stress. Biomarkers are substances found in blood, other body fluids or tissues that signal the presence of absence or a condition or disease.  

The research project will have three different groups. One group will receive educational material about managing anxiety and stress. 

A second group will receive the educational materials and attend 10 weeks of tai chi classes that meet twice a week for one hour. 

A third group will receive the educational materials, attend the 10 weeks of tai chi classes and receive a DVD of the curriculum to support out-of-class practice.

Members of the community ages 18-40 are invited to complete a confidential online screening at to determine eligibility for a telephone interview.

Potential participants who meet all the study entrance criteria will be invited to a face-to-face interview where they will receive complete information about the study. 

Recruitment for the first cohort of tai chi classes will end Feb. 1, but the classes will be offered again this fall and spring 2014.

Caldwell is the principal investigator on the NIH study. 

Her collaborators are Appalachian faculty members Scott Collier, Travis Triplett, Shawn Bergman and   Rebecca Quinn. 

For more information about Caldwell, go to