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National Institutes of Health Funded Project to Study Effects of Tai Chi on Anxiety and Sleep in College-Age Adults

Sept. 26, 2012. Stress, anxiety and sleep difficulties are pressing problems facing today’s college students. Dr. Karen Caldwell, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling in Appalachian State University’s Reich College of Education, thinks practicing the art of Tai Chi can help students improve their quality of sleep and reduce stress. 

She is the lead researcher for a $393,140 grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health to conduct a feasibility study on the effects of the meditation exercise on sleep quality and symptoms of anxiety.

“It’s amazing when you look at the data the number of students who report having anxieties and suffering from lack of sleep,” she said. In a 2008 American College of Health Association survey in which Appalachian participated, the most frequently reported negative factors affecting academic performance were stress and sleep difficulties. Anxiety was the fourth most commonly reported negative impact.

“So while it’s not everybody, it is a lot of the student population, especially when one in five college students say they are really stressed,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell has been teaching Tai Chi as one of the university’s physical education course offerings for more than five years. She started practicing Tai Chi for her own benefit 20 years ago.

“I found it was very helpful for stress relief,” she said. “The undergraduates I teach often remark that the class helps them relax or that they feel better after class.”

Caldwell previously has conducted research on mindfulness, or attentiveness, and sleep quality by surveying students in Tai Chi, Pilates and Gyrokenesis® classes on campus. She found about 55 percent of the students in those classes were reporting sleep disturbances. Students in the classes reported improvement in their sleep, while those in a control group reported their sleep quality had worsened.

“Tai Chi has a strong emphasis on relaxation and meditation, which helps people control their mind states,” Caldwell said. “There has been a lot of research recently on mindfulness and how it is connected to people’s health status. Generally, the more mindful someone is, the better their ability to deal with stress, pain or difficult issues.”

During the three-year feasibility study, Caldwell will collaborate with Drs. Scott Collier and Travis Triplett from the Department of Health, Leisure and Exercise Science in Appalachian’s College of Health Sciences, instructor Rebecca Quinn from the Department of Theatre and Dance in the College of Fine and Applied Arts, and Dr. Shawn Bergman from the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as graduate students.

A total of 80 students will be recruited to the study. Participants assigned to the Tai Chi intervention will attend 10-week long Tai Chi classes. They will self-report measures related to improved sleep and anxiety before, during and after taking the class. Also, their heart rate and stress hormone levels will be recorded, as will sleep quality using ambulatory EEG technology.

Depending on the results of the feasibility study, Caldwell will seek funding for a larger research project.