Autogenic Therapy: a Powerful Stress reduction Technique
Sam Rodin, Ph.D.
Life in the 21st century feels more stressful than ever. The evening news bombards us with stories of crime, health risks, war, economic and political instability. Both work and relationships become more demanding as new technologies and the faster pace of life put more pressure on all of us. General practitioners agree that at least half of their patients suffer from physical or emotional problems either caused by stress or aggravated by it. The conventional remedies Â? medication or long-term therapy Â? often focus on alleviating the symptoms rather than dealing with the cause and can lead to dependency on medication or on the practitioner.
When we perceive a threat that we feel we cannot cope with, our body's physiology reacts automatically with the fight or flight stress response. It is the Sympathetic Nervous System Â? part of the autonomic nervous system Â? that puts the mind-body system on red alert. The primitive part of the brain Â? the hypothalamus Â? floods our body with the stress hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, our heart pumps faster, our muscles tense, our blood pressure rises and we start to perspire. Our body is primed either to fight or to flee.
Not All Stress is Bad for Us
In short manageable bursts, stress is good for us. It gives us a zest for life, a 'buzz' and sense of fulfilment Â? the challenge of a new job, project or romance Â? and it can help us to excel in our performance and realise our potential. A totally stress-free life would be dull and boring. Too little stress is just as unhealthy as too much stress.
The key is to tell the difference between the healthy stimulus of a challenge, and excessive stress Â? a constant feeling of being under too much pressure Â? which causes fatigue, distress and eventually, disease. If the warning signs are ignored, excessive stress can lead to emotional and physical exhaustion and eventually, mental breakdown (e.g. depression or suicide) or physical breakdown (e.g. heart attack or stroke).
However, stress is a very individual matter. We each have different stress thresholds.
What is challenging and stimulating for one person might be overwhelming for another. It is not the source of stress itself but, crucially our perception of the situation and our perception of our ability to cope with it that determine whether it is distressing.
In modern life, most of the threats that we face are mental and emotional rather than physical, e.g. the threat of redundancy or the breakdown of a relationship. The body reacts with the 'fight or flight' response but we cannot fight or run away, so we have no chance to use up the adrenaline. We feel wound up but have no way to release the hormones and restore our physical and emotional balance. The strain of being constantly on red alert depletes our immune system and can lead to illness or burnout.
Autogenic Training: Restoring Physical and Emotional Balance.
What we need in times of excessive stress is to restore a healthy physical and emotional balance - to find the right balance between effort and rest. Is there anything that we can do for ourselves to keep stress at the optimum level so that it works for us as stimulation and challenge, rather than against us in the form of illness or burnout? Is there any technique that would enable us to switch off the stress response and switch on its opposite Â? the 'relaxation response' Â? to restore our body's natural balance?
The answer is 'Yes'. Autogenic Training (AT), also known as Autogenic Therapy is a powerful and scientifically validated deep relaxation technique that empowers you to reduce your stress and anxiety in minutes. Once learned over an eight week course, this simple mind-body technique, akin to meditation, becomes a skill for life to relax your body and calm your mind anytime. It enables you to tap into the body's innate healing capacity to restore health and well-being.
By regularly practising simple autogenic relaxation and body awareness exercises, you can learn to switch off the body's 'fight or flight' stress response and switch on the 'relaxation response'. The relaxation response is a physical state of profound rest that reverses the stress response when the perceived danger has passed. It is activated by the Parasympathetic Nervous System Â? the other branch of the autonomic nervous system. The whole mind-body system comes back to a state of harmony and balance. Heart rate and breathing become slower, muscle tension and blood pressure decrease, the metabolism slows and the calmer mental activity associated with meditation appears.
The relaxation response elicits the body's innate self-healing processes which induce rest, repair and recuperation, boost the immune system and restore emotional balance. Research has demonstrated that regular activation of the relaxation response is the most effective treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders.
Autogenic Training has been called a Western form of meditation, for the state of passive concentration which characterises the 'autogenic state' is comparable to the state of 'mindfulness' in Eastern systems of meditation. AT, however, appeals to the Western mind because, unlike many forms of meditation and yoga it has no religious or cultural overtones and requires no special clothing or unusual postures or practices. It is body orientated, simply structured and, crucially, it cultivates the individual's autonomy and personal growth.
Autogenic Training is probably the most effective simple stress reduction technique ever developed in the West. Once learned, AT enables you, within minutes, to bring the apparently involuntary stress response under your voluntary control. You are not dependent on any therapist or equipment and can practise almost anywhere Â? on a train, plane, or on the toilet at work. The technique empowers you to stop reacting automatically to sources of stress and move towards greater physical and emotional balance and peace of mind. In just a few minutes you can practise the exercises, releasing your physical and mental tensions and dipping into the exquisite calm of your own 'oasis of peace'.
Autogenic Training was developed in the 1920's and 1930's by Dr Johannes Schultz, a German neurologist and psychiatrist who was researching the physiology of deeply relaxed states such as when under hypnosis or going to sleep. He found that his patients reported two specific physical sensations when deeply relaxed: heaviness in their limbs and warmth in the limbs and abdomen. The sensation of heaviness is caused by deep relaxation of the muscles, and the feeling of warmth is the result of dilation in the peripheral arteries. Schultz thought that if he taught people to make auto-suggestions that they were experiencing these sensations, then they would quickly enable their autonomic nervous system to switch from the stress response to the relaxation response.
How Autogenic Training is Learnt
Autogenic means self-generated. The autogenic exercises empower people to access their body's innate self-healing processes and restore physical and emotional balance. Schultz developed a series of six autogenic standard exercises which form the basis of the eight weekly sessions of an AT course. You do the exercises while seated or lying comfortably with your eyes closed. Each week you learn simple formulas which you silently repeat while focusing your attention on different parts of the body and the sensations associated with a relaxed state: heaviness in the limbs, then warmth, a calm regular heartbeat, quiet breathing, warmth in the abdomen and coolness in the forehead. You learn to practise the exercises with a casual, effortless attitude - 'passive concentration' - a detached but alert state of mind in which you are unconcerned with results. It is a relaxed mindful awareness Â? a meditative state - in which you become the passive observer who simply accepts and witnesses your bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgement. The key is, paradoxically, not to try too hard but to let the mind-body system heal itself.
You can take the eight-week course as an individual or a member of a small group. You are encouraged to practise the exercises for about 10 minutes three times daily and keep a brief record of your experiences. This assists your therapist to tailor the training course to your individual needs.
AT can be used to provide a non-drug approach for many stress-related physical and emotional conditions or to support and enhance progress with other therapies. It has been taught in the UK for nearly 30 years and on the Continent and Japan for much longer. Many research papers have shown the efficacy of the clinical applications of AT. Conditions which respond well to AT include asthma, migraines, headaches, high blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, muscular pain and tension, irritable bowel syndrome and several others.
It is not necessary to be physically ill or emotionally distressed to benefit from AT. Many people learn AT to mobilise their creativity, to improve their work efficiency, to improve sports performance or to facilitate personal growth and inner development. Once mastered, AT is always available without the need for a therapist or any equipment. It can be practised almost anywhere. Exercises can vary in time from 20 seconds to 20 minutes making it readily accessible at all times. The 'autogenic tool-kit' includes complementary exercises to release and manage emotions such as anger, anxiety and grief as well as personal formulas and affirmations to help you bring about desired changes of behaviour or attitude,.
Malcolm, a 56 year old journalist, very independent, sensitive and intelligent, had a high level of anxiety, especially social anxiety and had a general sense of being a failure. He suffered from periodic depression and suicidal thoughts. His hopes that AT might help his social anxiety and depression were fulfilled dramatically. By the end of the course, his social anxiety had declined significantly and he was no longer
worried that other people would judge him. He reported being far more confident, relaxed and inwardly calm in the midst of hassle and stress. At the end of the course, when he read his self-assessment written three months earlier at the start of the course, he could hardly remember or recognise himself. Quite a transformation!
Barbara, aged 38, had been a senior ward sister in a large hospital for many years and was suffering from burnout. She identified with her patients and grieved for those patients who had died. She had still not got over the sudden death of her father many years earlier. She had been prone to panic attacks since adolescence and had not experienced much time in her life without anxiety. She suffered from insomnia and tension headaches, frequent, severe chest pains and worried that she had a heart condition. She had consulted a cardiologist who had given her medication but she had a phobia about medical treatment. Her great fear was that she might die and be unable to care for her young child.
By the end of the course she was feeling much better. Most of the time, she had no pain. She had a new, less stressful job and was relaxed and confident. She was able to sleep better. She said that having AT as a tool, always available whenever she feels stressed, means a lot to her. She is very committed to her AT and continues to do the exercises twice a day.
John, aged 45, is married with three children and runs a successful business. He was worried about mild panic attacks, increased blood pressure at times of stress, losing his temper and dangerous driving. He found that AT enabled him to control his emotions and to relax. He is now generally calmer and much less likely to lose his temper. When anger rears its head he can deal with it and he finds himself more tolerant of behaviour that used to provoke him. His blood pressure is now normal and he is reassured that if he feels a panic building, he just needs to do his AT to restore calm. He finds it hard to believe that such simple exercises can have such a profound effect.
AT Â? Your own Oasis of Peace
Whenever you feel stressed you have this powerful tool kit available to reduce your stress, gain a new perspective on your life, and find emotional balance and well-being. In just a few minutes you can practise the exercises, releasing physical, mental and emotional tensions and dip into the exquisite calm of your own 'oasis of peace'.
Dr Sam Rodin is an autogenic therapist, stress management counsellor, writer and university lecturer.
He offers one-to-one and group AT courses in private practice in London N2 and in various health centres and business premises.
Call Dr Rodin on Tel: 020 8922 7646 or visit www.samrodin.co.uk
The British Autogenic Society is the professional and regulatory body for autogenic
therapists in the UK. Call the administrator on Tel: 020 7391 8908 or visit
About the author:Dr Sam Rodin is an autogenic therapist, stress management counsellor and writer. He offers one-to-one and group autogenic training courses at his private practice in North London and in health centres and business premises. He has a doctorate in sociology and psychology.
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