health-032112-001-617x416For years, I believed that I was healthy and in control of my life. A routine blood pressure check at a health fair revealed otherwise and my numbers were dangerously high. This came as a shock to myself and those around me because I was a healthy, young physical therapist who exercised regularly, ate a whole food diet, and never smoked. Follow-up testing revealed no kidney dysfunction or brain tumors, so I was prescribed blood pressure medication and sent on my way.  Unwilling to accept that my high blood pressure could be possible without an organic cause, I sought additional avenues of treatment to no avail.  A few weeks later, I experienced a moment of catharsis and came to the realization that my perceived life burdens and responsibilities had led to an extremely high allostatic load; in other words, I was stressed.  In addition to hypertension, I had been experiencing acid reflux, sleep disturbance, low back pain, anxiety, and irritability.  I had not connected all of these symptoms until the word “stress” appeared in my consciousness.

As a course of self-care, I investigated meditation through Dr. Herbert Benson’s “The Relaxation Response” and after practicing for six dedicated months, my blood pressure was in normal ranges and my other symptoms were eliminated.  These months of regular meditation instilled in me a deeper understanding of the body-mind connection and I committed myself to continuing the practice.  One year later, a sinus infection necessitated a return to the doctor’s office where I met with a different doctor in the same practice.  Upon seeing my history of high blood pressure, he handed me three pieces of paper to educate me on hypertension management; get regular exercise, eat a balanced diet, and quit smoking were the topics included in each sheet.  As I naturally adhered to all of these recommendations and still had experienced hypertension, I asked my doctor why stress management wasn’t included in these handouts.  He unapologetically said that he didn’t have time to deal with stress, yet in a follow up sentence admitted that unmanaged stress was the primary cause of heart disease in his experience.   In that moment, I decided to make stress management education and practice a key part of not only my own life, but in every client’s treatment plan where it was appropriate.  The follow-up results of this choice have been no less than miraculous as I have watched clients heal faster and leave their rehabilitation process more whole in body, mind, and spirit than before they were injured.

The sad news is that my experience with this doctor is not uncommon.  An extensive survey done by the American Psychological Association published in a report called “Health Care Falls Short on Stress Management” revealed that only 22 percent of Americans say their health care provider supports them in managing their stress.  This finding becomes additionally troubling in light of WEB MD’s report that 75-90% of all doctor’s visits are directly correlated to stress-related ailments and complaints; this is approximately two-trillion dollars per year of health costs directly attributed to unmanaged stress.  So why are patients’ stress management needs not being met?  The answer may be found in a 2014 Career Builder survey, which reported that 69% of health care professionals report feeling “stressed” and 17% describe themselves as “highly stressed”.

The physiologic effects of chronic stress that occur “below the neck” like high blood pressure, chest breathing, and digestive dysfunction have been known for some time.  The new scientific studies of stress effects on the brain continue to reveal salient results including decreased executive functioning, memory loss, and poor emotional mirroring.  Because of the cognitive and emotional shut down that occurs with chronic stress, it becomes no stretch of the imagination to consider just why patients’ needs in this are not being adequately addressed.  Health care professionals are more stressed then their patients!

Tai Chi & Qigong have both rich experiential history and modern research- supported evidence, proving their ability to engage the practitioner’s parasympathetic nervous system; in other words, these simple practices promote cellular healing and open cognitive pathways via an autonomic nervous system response.  Making Tai Chi & Qigong rehabilitative means primarily stimulating a healing response in addition to using specifically chosen ancient movement practices to engage the body in therapeutic ways.  Practicing Tai Chi & Qigong with patients benefits both the patient and the therapist.  As rehabilitative professionals, we connect with our clients more often than primary or specialty care physicians and have a golden opportunity to effect true change in the majority of patient outcomes by first placing emphasis on facilitating a parasympathetic shift both in ourselves and in our clients; regardless of the therapeutic technique, no healing can take place without a parasympathetic shift in our system.

Using Rehabilitative Tai Chi & Qigong in modern context becomes a multidisciplinary approach to contemporary practice with positive effects noted not only in the musculoskeletal, neurological, cardiopulmonary, immune, and digestive systems, but also in the areas of cognitive improvement and emotional balancing.  What underlies the remarkable effectiveness of these simple practices is the fact that the human body already knows how to heal itself and it just needs us to relax, let go, and get out of the way.

-Brian Trzaskos, IRQTC