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In Dartmouth's New Theory about Stress, Qigong Gets Spotlight
May 15, 2015 -
The term "stress" is widely used, and its significant contribution to human disease and suffering is well recognized. However, some researchers from Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University think the term is often poorly defined. Over 50 years after the first use of the term, there are enough questions left unresolved that they suggest that a different way of looking at these phenomena is needed. Below they list these key questions:

What is the difference between "good" stress and "bad" stress?

What distinguishes acute, chronic and traumatic stress, apart from the differing physiological responses?

What is resilience to stress?

What is appraisal, and how does it influence the stress response?

What is the actual nature of stress, apart from its neurological and neurochemical correlates?

Simple physiological definitions of stress do not appear to answer these questions. The researchers from Dartmouth propose that the concept of preparatory set (PS) can clarify these issues. The term "preparatory set" has been in use in the scientific literature at least since 1918. Here, the researchers use the term to refer to the rapid preparation of the organism for response to the environment. 

The PS involves integrated action of 5 elements: the subcortical systems controlling muscle tone and posture, autonomic/visceral state, affect, attentional arousal, and expectation. It is a key point in their hypothesis that these all tend to respond together, as different facets of a single process. 

What are BTES and How Do They Relate to PS?

BTES (body-mind therapeutic and educational systems), including meditation, meditative movement, Somatic education and body-oriented psychotherapies, offer approaches to alleviating human suffering that differ substantially from mainstream pharmacological, cognitive, exposure and exercise interventions. BTES address the person as an integrated whole, an approach quite different from the bio-medical approach of isolating, analyzing and treating the functioning of separate systems. Using the PS as an explanatory framework, the researchers hope to demonstrate that current neuroscience supports the view of the BTES that bodily aspects are, at a basic level, inseparable from affective and cognitive aspects of the organism.

Qigong and Tai Chi

Qigong is one of the few BTES forms that the Dartmouth researchers discussed in depth.

Qigong teaches balanced standing and movement accompanied by spatial, proprioceptive and interceptive awareness. It brings conscious awareness to the (mechanical) postural processes of grounding, orientation, and correct relation of the longitudinal axis to gravity, thus promoting optimal postural preparedness and a sense of self-efficacy; and through the monitoring of breathing and other interceptive information, muscle tone and movement (proprioception), and thought activity, brings about a calm, centered state in which one is responding to the actual present condition rather than preparing for past or future events.


Further, it trains one to let go of inappropriate anticipatory tension, to maintain resilient flexible posture with balanced muscle tone, and to maintain this balanced preparatory state while moving in simple or complex ways, moving with a partner, or even simulating attack and defense.

One of the great benefits of martial forms of Qigong (like Tai Chi) is that it teaches one to prepare for extreme challenge by remaining flexible, grounded and aware rather than tensing in fear or anger or collapsing in fear. Although Qigong practice may not specifically address past traumatic memories, we suggest it may facilitate processing such memories by retraining the dysfunctional PSs associated with them. Qigong practice characteristically involves using imagined movement to create very subtle changes in bodily posture and proprioceptive experience. This engages the premotor areas, central to our concept of the PS. The methods of Qigong are fully congruent with our hypotheses concerning the PS.

Research into Qigong has been hampered by poor experimental design, small studies, and difficulty translating the traditional theory into scientific terms. However, most studies point to positive results in a wide range of physical and psychological conditions, in some cases even when compared to standard treatments.


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