Autogenic Training (AT)
‘AT is experienced as a pleasant relaxation technique. It is simple, easy and requires no special practice clothing or difficult postures. Proceeding through gentle mental exercises in body awareness progressively involving the limbs, heart and circulatory system, the breathing and nervous system, almost anyone can learn to experience passive concentration, which is the essence of the Autogenic State. The ability to do this at will breaks through the vicious circle of excessive stress whatever the origins.’ (Carruthers, M. 1979)
AT is a highly effective relaxation technique for people who want to improve skills in stress and/or pain management. Within a few weeks of regular AT practice, the trainee may find an improvement to aspects of quality of life as well as feel more empowered and in control. With regular practice, AT may improve sleep and feelings of well-being and reduce stress and anxiety. AT may help bring about desirable life changes.
Fight or flight response
The human body’s natural and involuntary (autonomic) reaction to danger or stress is the ‘fight or flight’ response. On a physical level, this involves the release of hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol which cause the heart to beat faster and the blood vessels in the arms and legs to constrict; breathing becomes faster and the glucose levels in the bloodstream increase to help deal with the life-threatening emergency.
The physical benefits of the ‘fight or flight’ response are designed to be short-term only – to help the person fight or escape from the danger or threat. Once the danger or threat is past, the body should return to its normal, pre-stressed state. In cases of chronic stress, where stressors – including pain – are experienced over a prolonged period of time, the nervous system automatically continues to activate the ‘fight or flight’ response and the body becomes locked in a permanent cycle of stress and stress response. The long-term result is damage to other bodily functions, including the immune system, and serious wear-and-tear on many bodily systems over time. Mind and body are linked. Relentless, un-alleviated stress may seriously impact a person’s physical and psychological well-being.
AT aims to obtain indirect voluntary control over the involuntary nervous system and to unlock and break this cycle of stress and stress-response through a technique of concentrated and deep relaxation. With regular practice, AT may positively impact physical and psychological well-being.
The technique of AT
‘The technique consists of learning a series of simple mental exercises designed to turn off the stressful ‘fight-flight’ mechanism in the body and turn on the restorative rhythms associated with profound relaxation. In general, the effects of AT on the mind and body may be considered as being diametrically opposed to changes brought about by stress.’
Luthe & Schultz (1969)
History of AT
Autogenic Training was developed in the 1920s and 1930s from work which originated at the beginning of the twentieth century. German neurologist, Johannes Schultz was strongly impressed by the work of neuropsychiatrist Oskar Vogt, who had observed that his hypnotised patients regularly reported two distinct sensations: ‘a heaviness especially in the limbs’ and ‘a sensation of warmth’. Johannes Schultz noted similar observations with his own hypnotised patients. Schultz concluded that each person possessed a neurophysiological ‘switch’ mechanism permitting autonomic self-regulation (autogenic or self-generated) which could be developed into a technique which was ‘therapist independent’. This realisation was the foundation for the development of Autogenic Training.