How Qigong Helps with Mental Health Issues Like Anxiety and Depression

Evolve is a proponent of experiential therapies, which promote mental health and prevent relapse. Experiential therapies (like equine-assisted therapy, surf therapy, music, art and more) provide fun, healthy outlets for teens, expose them to new ways of expressing themselves, and help them discover what a “life worth living” looks like for them.

A new experiential therapy we now offer at Evolve Treatment Centers is Qigong, a mind-body practice involving slow, fluid movements and mindful breathing, similar to Tai Chi. Qigong is a form of complementary medicine that reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Mental Health

Qigong is one of the five branches of traditional Chinese medicine that promote mental health, stress reduction, and positive mood. The other four branches are acupuncture, diet, herbs, and massage. All five activities aim to restore a person’s harmony with nature.

Qigong is a combination of Qi (pronounced CHEE), meaning “vital energy,” and gong, meaning “skill.” Combined, the word translates to “the skill of cultivating your vital energy.” Qigong involves coordinated breathing, body movements, and meditation exercises. The purpose of Qigong is not to strengthen your core muscles or become more flexible – though that’s a nice side benefit – but rather to strengthen the mind and increase one’s energy reserves, says Evolve’s Qigong teacher, Nick Loffree, who apprenticed with world-famous Qigong Master Lee Holden in Santa Cruz, California.

The Mind/Body Connection

Qigong involves a combination of movements, including:

  1. Movement of body—physical movement of your body and limbs
  2. Movement of breath—deep, mindful breathing
  3. Movement of mind—focusing your mind on different parts of your body

“When the breath, mind, and body are working together in synergy,” says Loffree, “with fluid, slow movements, dynamic stretches, coordinated rhythmic breathing, and specifically aligned postures, then we can harness the flow of our Qi—our vital energy.”

How does this restorative effect occur?

“Most people know that deep breathing calms the nervous system, but they don’t know how much more potent that becomes when coordinated breath is combined with slow, rhythmic full-body movement. The combination tends to double the effect.”

Qigong master Nick Loffree practices Qigong on a beach in California.

What’s the difference between Qigong and Yoga?

There are many similarities between Qigong and Yoga. Both practices are forms of complementary medicine and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) exercises. At Evolve, we offer both Qigong and yoga.

Qigong is similar to yoga in that it requires teens to engage in meditative breathing while moving their limbs and focusing their mind on different parts of their body. However, in simplistic terms, “yoga is generally more cleansing of negative energy, while Qigong builds positive energy,” says Loffree, who recommends teens struggling with addiction and/or mental health issues to engage in both practices to receive the most therapeutic benefit.

And while Qigong and Tai Chi both involve slow-motion, fluid movements, the average adolescent finds Qigong much easier to learn and practice.

Qigong for Depression and Anxiety

You need a great deal of mindfulness to practice Qigong, which makes this exercise a relaxing and effective way of reducing stress and increasing energy. Even more than that, though, Qigong has been effective in reducing many mental health symptoms and physical illnesses.

There is no one-size-fits all when it comes to Qigong. People use Qigong for many different purposes—to heal from physical illness, promote addiction recovery, or reduce depression or anxiety. The style of movement takes on different forms depending on the specific goal of the user.

For instance, take a teen struggling with anxiety. “Anxiety is expressed by a scattered Qi in terms of energy,” explains Loffree. “That’s why you’ll often find that teens with anxiety sit on the edge of their seats; their energy is all found upwards and outwards. So since we have rising, scattered energy, we need to center it and balance it out with downward, inward, stable movement. In one form of the exercise, we’ll put our hands up, very slowly, and draw them down, for downwards flow. And we’ll draw our hands inward, towards the belly, grounding ourselves.”

With depression, it’s the opposite. “The expression of depression is usually a heavy Qi. Teens often find they can’t get out of bed, they’re lethargic, their energy levels are low. So to treat that, we’d do upwards, outwards movement.”

Is Qigong Evidence-based?

Qigong has been found to be an effective, evidence-based complementary therapy that helps teens and adolescents decrease negative mental health symptoms.

Research shows that Qigong directly impacts anxiety, depression, stress, mood and self-esteem. In randomized controlled trials, anxiety decreased significantly for the participants who practiced Qigong compared to an active exercise group. Studies have also shown that people who practice Qigong reduced their depression symptoms significantly more than those who didn’t participate.

In another study, Qigong decreased levels of circulating cortisol – which indicate stress — in participants who practiced Qigong, compared to a wait-list control group.

Evolve Utilizes Complementary Medicine in Addition to DBT and CBT

At Evolve, we seek to expose our teens to different forms of complementary medicine in conjunction with traditional talk therapy such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Our hope is that our adolescents find an experiential activity they can connect to during their time with us, and continue incorporating it into their day-to-day lives even after they leave treatment. Qigong is self-healing movement that anyone can do on their own, wherever they are, once they learn the basic skills.

To view and practice some Qigong exercises yourself, visit www.NickLoffree.com for complimentary videos and instructions. For more information on Evolve’s modes of therapy and its full continuum of care, visit www.evolvetreatment.com.