What is autogenic training?

Quick Answer
A method of self-control therapy that teaches a person to use specific phrases to enter a state of deep relaxation and to achieve healing.
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Overview

Autogenic (“generated from within”) training, or AT, is one of the oldest biobehavioral methods used in clinical psychology and stress management. Developed in the 1920s by Johannes H. Schultz as a self-hypnotic procedure, it drew on the observation that under hypnosis, persons often reported a sensation of heaviness (muscle relaxation) and warmth (vascular dilation) in their limbs.

A firm believer in the self-regulatory capacities of the human body, Schultz considered that hypnosis occurred not only because the patient allowed it but also because he or she induced it. Consequently, Schultz looked for an autogenic “trigger,” or formula, that could be used to enter this state. Ultimately, he perfected a series of simple mental exercises that allow the mind to calm itself by turning off the body’s stress responses.

The technique uses autosuggestion to establish a new mind/body balance through changes in the autonomic nervous system. Unlike progressive muscular relaxation and biofeedback, AT does not involve a conscious attempt to relax the muscles or control physiological functions. Rather, through passive self-suggestion (“observing” concentration and nonforcing), the person tries to render specific body regions warm and heavy. The training process involves focusing on, and subvocally repeating, one of six basic autogenic phrases, or orientations, several minutes each day, for one week or more. These phrases (with many possible variations) are “My arms and legs are heavy,” “My arms and legs are warm,” “My heartbeat is calm and regular,” “My lungs are breathing for me,” “My abdomen is warm,” and “My forehead is cool.” The words can be changed without altering the effectiveness of the method, to suit the practitioner’s mind and circumstances. Within months of training, achieving a state of deep relaxation and beneficial physiological changes will take only seconds.

Mechanism of Action

The AT verbal suggestions represent a form of self-hypnosis, very powerful in inducing deep relaxation. Autogenic training uses selective awareness (SA), which represents the receptivity of the conscious mind to receive and acknowledge specific thoughts. Under SA circumstances, the censorship exerted by the ego should be annihilated, and thoughts should be allowed to travel freely from the conscious to the unconscious realm. The absence of censorship can improve dramatically the mind’s ability to influence physiological processes as desired. In this receptive state, pain sensations are also significantly reduced.

Worldwide, abundant anecdotal reports of persons accomplishing daunting physical tasks while severely injured bear witness to the power of this phenomenon. Still insufficiently understood, the interplay between conscious and unconscious can nevertheless play important roles in maintaining physiological and psychological homeostasis. The method appears to exert a balancing effect upon the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic, fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest, respectively).

During AT training sessions, sudden physical and emotional reactions, such as numbness, muscle twitching, or tears, may result from the release of unconscious thoughts. The manifestation, considered normal and even beneficial, is called autogenic discharge.

Uses and Applications

Autogenic training is most commonly used to reduce anxiety, fatigue, chronic pain, and stress. The sensations of warmth and heaviness can induce sleep, thus rendering the method useful in persons with insomnia.

Additional proposed uses for the method include constipation and diarrhea, gastritis, ulcers, headaches, high blood pressure, hyperventilation, asthma, irregular and rapid heartbeat, and Raynaud’s phenomenon (episodic vasospasm of fingers and toes). Evidence also suggests that AT may enhance mental well-being and clinical outcome in persons with Ménière’s disease (an inner-ear disorder that affects hearing and balance).

Scientific Evidence

Thousands of studies have been conducted on the effects and clinical applications of AT, both in Europe since the introduction of the method and in the United States beginning in the 1980s. A wealth of data remains in languages other than English.

Ample experimental support exists for the hypothesis that AT affects sympathetic tone and even parasympathetic function (that is, increased cardiac parasympathetic tone, with beneficial results). There is considerable difficulty in standardizing the technique, selecting participants, and measuring outcomes, so rigorous clinical studies are notoriously difficult to perform. Many studies have serious methodological flaws. Nevertheless, randomized-controlled trials have been conducted, with significant results indicating AT effectiveness in reducing anxiety and chronic pain, improving the symptoms of migraine headaches, and alleviating the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and other conditions.

Choosing a Practitioner

AT is more popular in Europe and Japan than in North America. The British Autogenic Society offers therapist training courses and maintains a directory of practitioners in the United Kingdom and abroad. These practitioners have various backgrounds and may be doctors, nurses, psychotherapists, psychologists, complementary therapists, social workers, or teachers. Interested persons can learn the technique from numerous books, Web sites, or, preferably, from AT therapists. A specialist can confirm the quality of the practice, monitor progress, provide feedback, and implement variations from the standard.

Safety Issues

AT is generally safe and can be used by most people, except children younger than school age and persons with severe psychiatric disorders. Before implementing the technique, however, persons should undergo a physical examination and should discuss potential effects with a health care practitioner. It has been suggested that rapid autonomic rebound can lead to dizziness, disorientation, anxiety, panic, and even hallucinations in certain persons. Finally, persons with cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, or other severe disorders should use AT under medical supervision only.

Bibliography

British Autogenic Society. http://www.autogenic-therapy.org.uk.

Edlin, Gordon, and Eric Golanty. Health and Wellness. 10th ed. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett, 2010. Covers multiple aspects of health and discusses stress management techniques, including AT.

Linden, Wolfgang. “The Autogenic Training Method of J. H. Schultz.” In Principles and Practice of Stress Management, edited by Paul M. Lehrer, Robert L. Woolfolk, and Wesley E. Sime. 3d ed. New York: Guilford Press, 2009. A clear and authoritative discussion of AT, written for health practitioners and dedicated general readers.

Seaward, Brian L. Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Well-Being. 6th ed. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett, 2009. An excellent work on stress management that includes a discussion of AT.