Autogenic training

Autogenic training provides a drug free approach to a whole host of stress related conditions, both physical and emotional. The technique teaches individuals simple relaxation techniques which increase body awareness and reverse automatic stress response. Once the 'fight or flight' response to stress has been shut down, the body's relaxation response can cut in.

The relaxation response is a state of extreme rest that encourages the body to repair and recuperate. This 'self healing process' will naturally boost the immune system, help to restore emotional balance and forms the basis of what is known as Autogenic training.

Autogenic training is often referred to as the western world's form of meditation, appealing to those who are less interested in the religious and cultural aspects of traditional meditation but still wish to obtain the benefits.

Research has demonstrated that Autogenic training is an effective treatment for a wide range of stress related disorders and it has been available on the NHS for a period of over 20 years. Autogenic training is usually taught as a course and involves a series of six standard exercises which form the basis of the treatment. Each week or session, a different formula is learnt and is intended to be repeated and practiced whilst focusing attention on different parts of the body and the sensations associated with a relaxed state. It is important that the exercises are practiced with 'passive concentration', which is a meditative state of mind enabling the body to restore harmony and function.

History

German neurologist and psychiatrist Dr Johannes Schultz developed Autogenic training back in the 1920's. Whilst Dr Schultz was researching the physiology of deeply relaxed states he found that teaching his patients to make auto suggestions that they were experiencing physical sensations of deep relaxation, would enable their nervous system to switch from stress to relaxation mode. In 1907 Schultz went to study medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland. This is where he began his specialisation in psychiatry and became deeply influenced by the work of Professor Oscar Vogt. Vogt had spent most of his life studying psychosomatic medicine and during his research he found that patients who practiced verbal exercises to induce a hypnotic state reported a better sense of well-being. The patients also reported reduced symptoms of headaches, fatigue, anxiety and other ailments.

After making this discovery the next goal for Schultz was to find a way of achieving a similar state to hypnosis, without actually hypnotising the patient. After trialling a number of methods, he found the most effective way was to direct attention to sensations of heaviness and warmth in the limbs which can be achieved using passive concentration and a verbal formula. Schultz published these findings in his 1912 research paper Autogenic Organ Exercises. After additional years of research and training, Schultz published the first edition of Autogenic Therapy in 1932. It explained the clinical application of the six standard autogenic formula which are still widely used throughout the world today.

What do we know?

There have been numerous studies which have explored the effectiveness of the Autogenic system and it is now considered a viable treatment for issues outside of just the stress and relaxation realm. For instance in Dublin it has been used to increase fertility. The stress hormone prolactin is known to be a natural contraceptive, meaning the higher the stress levels in a women, the less likely she will be able to conceive naturally. Autogenic training was used as a method of decreasing levels of the stress hormone and proved to be a success in increasing conception rates.

Another comprehensive study of the technique found that it had a large effect in reducing the resting pulse rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride and free fatty acid levels. This study was conducted by Dr Carruthers and appeared in the British Journal of Medical Health. The study was followed up four years down the line and in addition to all of the above, was also found to be successful in reducing the risk of a heart attack.

A further study required individuals with HIV to use the technique to see if it relieved some of the symptoms. It was found to decrease pain, night sweats, diarrhoea and weight loss and also improved quality of life, giving individuals a more positive outlook and a higher average survival time than those reported elsewhere.

What to expect

What does the teacher do?

As with most types of alternative therapy, your first step will be an initial personal assessment. This is when your therapist will take the time to learn about any medical history you might have and what the problem is. It is important that you provide your therapist with as much information as possible as this will enable them to develop a thorough and personal treatment plan.

Because Autogenic training is held in high esteem in the medical world and is used by the NHS, it could be that you've been referred for treatment for a specific medical condition, meaning you will require very careful monitoring throughout the course. Unless the therapist is medically qualified, it will also mean close co-operation between your therapist and GP or physician.

Once you have had your initial consultation your therapist will be able to form an exercise plan which is tailored to treating your problem. Each exercise will focus on a different bodily organ and will require the repetition of a simple formula whilst focusing attention on sensations which are associated with relaxation.

In order for the exercises to be a success they must be carried out in a state of passive concentration. It may sound complicated but this is something your therapist will talk you through and it basically means you need to complete the exercises without having a goal or an outcome in mind. In doing so your body is able to naturally achieve optimum function.

When the course is nearing completion you should have reached the stage where you are able to practice the exercises and achieve passive concentration without help in a variety of everyday situations. This will allow integration of the Autogenic training into everyday life and will mean the benefits can be experienced for the next week, month, year or life, depending on how long the system is continued.

The six autogenic 'formulas' or states

As mentioned previously, Schulz developed six standard 'formulas' which are now the basis of most Autogenic training techniques around the world. The 'formulas' or 'states' are as follows:

  1. focus on heaviness in the arms and legs
  2. focus on warmth in the arms and legs
  3. focus on warmth and heaviness in the heart area
  4. focus on breathing
  5. focus on warmth in the abdomen
  6. focus on coolness in the forehead.

The first two formulas are usually broken down, with focus on the dominant arm first. For each of the above you will usually be asked to recite a phrase silently with closed eyes, for instance “my legs feel heavy”. It is recommended each be practiced three times a day for 10 – 15 minutes each. Once your therapist feels you've achieved a satisfactory level you will then move onto the next 'formula'.

How many sessions will I need?

Courses will usually cover a period of between 8 to 10 weeks, ether individually or in small groups. The exercises learnt are to be practiced for 10 – 15 minutes three times a day and it is a good idea to keep a diary of experiences so your therapist can monitor the progress you are making at home.

How can it help me?

People from all walks of life experiencing all kinds of ailments can reap the benefits of Autogenic training. Not only can it be used to treat a variety of ailments and injuries, but it is also used by people of an artistic nature to enhance performance and creativity. It's even been reported to have helped airline pilots adjust to jet-lag, astronauts adjust to space and businesses frequently use it to keep work stresses at bay. Even though you might not be about to rocket off into space, there are numerous other issues that can benefit from Autogenic training. Contact a practitioner directly for more details.

What qualifications and experience should therapists have?

Autogenic training is not currently regulated by law in the UK meaning there are no set guidelines as to what training and experience is needed in order to practice as a therapist.

However, practitioners do have the option of registering with a professional association that will usually have its own membership criteria and code of ethics, giving reassurance to those searching for a therapist that their practitioner is qualified, experienced and working to certain standards of good practice.

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