Prolonged youth, reduced stress and relief from pain without pills or potions? Sounds like another faddish health claim, until you try Autogenic Therapy…
Autogenic Therapy… the name sounds slightly off-putting, doesn’t it? Like an obscure Manhattan health cult, or some shrill and drastic treatment involving cranking Victorian equipment.
The reality, as I was to discover, couldn’t be further from the truth. Within weeks – and despite my skepticism – Autogenic Therapy transformed me from irritable workaholic urbanite to a relaxed, healthy and (almost) Zen-like being.
“The modern world is more stressful than we realise,” says Janet Love, the London-based psychotherapist and Autogenics practioner who would be my guru during the nine weeks it takes to perfect the Autogenics technique.
“Even something as apparently simple as a trip to the supermarket is stressful, as we are bombarded by choice. And our bodies aren’t built to cope with this. We are all living in a constant state of fight-or-flight arousal, which makes us prone to the typical stress-related illnesses, such as back and shoulder pain, headaches and sleeplessness.”
Autogenic Therapy (AT), Janet tells me, doesn’t remove these external ‘stressers’, but creates coping mechanisms, training the body to operate at a lower level of arousal, which benefits cardiovascular and digestive systems and gives the body a much-need opportunity to repair itself.
And it’s this self-healing aspect of Autogenic Therapy that makes its applications at once so vast and yet so tricky to define, perhaps explaining why AT is so little appreciated outside its native Germany. But AT does have some pretty staunch supporters.
Recent studies have shown the treatment to have great potential for a range of health and emotional problems, from recovery from serious operations to cancers, or use as an alternative to sleeping pills, beta-blockers and other over-prescribed modern drugs.
So, what exactly is AT? Autogenic Therapy has a good pedigree. It was developed in the 1930s by Dr Johannes Schultz, a German neuropsychiatrist and student of Oskar Voigt, a neuro-pathologist who was heavily involved in research into sleep and hypnosis.
These patients began to talk of a profound relief from tension, fatigue and a range of health problems. Schultz was fascinated, and drew on these observations, formulating techniques for patients to induce this deep relaxation at will.
AT was then developed further in the fifties by Dr Wolfgang Luthe, who documented the relaxing effect the treatment had on a group of asthmatics in his care.
The patient learns to give him or herself a set of relaxing instructions, including imagining heaviness or warmth in limbs and shoulders, which when mastered can be used during periods of stress to enable to transfer the body’s internal state from one of ‘war’ to one of ‘peace’.
It sounded just the thing for a woman who commonly found herself awake into the early hours, mind whirring in an inexplicable panic over deadlines and bills.
Session one, and I’m lying flat on my back with my knees and head supported by pillows, feeling mildly embarrassed. This is one of the three autogenic postures that Janet teaches me, the others are sitting postures, which are useful, she tells me, for when I’m out-and-about and feeling overcome by stress.
I close my eyes and Janet takes me through a ‘body scan’, a passive awareness of the physical state of my body from head to toe. She then tells me to silently repeat the mantra “my right arm feels heavy” three times, moving on to my left arm and legs.
I’m soon feeling as if I’m about to drop into one of those drooling, head-lolling dozes that are a feature of advanced years, but Janet cruelly wrests me from this delicious state. The ability to quickly dip both into and out of relaxation is, it seems, the true key to the power of AT.
Over the coming sessions, I learn, amongst other alien things, to instruct my neck and shoulders to feel heavy, my limbs to feel warm and my heartbeat to feel slow and regular. Admittedly, I’m skeptical at first, and initially find it difficult to switch off and suspend my sense of the ridiculous.
However, by week three I’m beginning to notice AT’s beneficial effects. Events that would ordinarily induce a frothing frenzy – Hackney Council’s incompetence, 3am car alarms, rude teenagers – now barely affect me.
Not only am I feeling calmer, but, miraculously, a range of physical symptoms have also all but disappeared – from a long-standing shoulder pain induced by my two-finger typing skills, to nagging digestive problems and skin complaints.
AT differs from ordinary relaxation treatments in the fact that it can produce profound side effects at first, which is why it’s recommended that you learn the technique with a trained AT practioner.
These negative symptoms range, Janet told me, from muscle twitching to stomach gurgling and an urge to scream, all of which I experienced further into the AT sessions.
These somewhat alarming symptoms are, in effect, the body releasing undigested emotions and anger – that suppressed screaming or crying fit, or the irritations we train ourselves, as supposedly civilised beings, to keep within.
“Often AT is often termed the Westerners meditation,” says Janet, when I tell her the beneficial effects I’m beginning to experience. The simple, body-focused structure of the AT exercise are, it seems, better suited to the busy Western mind than conventional meditation techniques.
“In this world, we all need to switch off, to find time to repair,” continues Janet, “your body has the power to repair itself. AT helps it do just that.”
What is AT good for?
A recent study in the latest European journal of Oncology Nursing showed that AT generated improvements in immune function, reduced anxiety and improved sleep quality among women with breast cancer. Research published in the American Heart Journal at the beginning of 2004 also showed that AT was beneficial for reducing anxiety in patients who have recently undergone coronary angioplasty.
AT has also been used in Schools in Canada, where it was found to improve behavioural problems and exam results; for Olympic athletes, as it improves oxygen flow to the muscles; and in the business world, to treat stress and improve decision-making ability.
How does it work?
AT affects the Autonomic Nervous System, a vast network of nerves that branch out from the spinal chord. The ANS is responsible for anything we feel, from sexual urge, to dread or determination, and is divided into two finely balanced systems, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The SNS is responsible for the ‘stress’ response… stimulation, or ‘fight and flight’, and the PNS has a sedating and recuperative function.
The balance of these two systems is upset in times of prolonged stress, with the SNS becoming locked in overdrive. AT allows, it seems, a rebalancing of the system, enabling us to move at will from a sympathetic-dominated state to a parasympathetic-dominated one and back again. AT patients find that they can not only manage current stress, but that they can eliminate ‘old’ stress and stress-related illnesses from the body.
How to do the Autogenics postures:
1/. Simple sitting posture Sit towards the front of a chair with legs comfortably apart and feet on the ground. Straighten your spine and place your hands palms down on your thighs. Allow your body to slump, as if folding in on itself, relaxing neck and shoulders and letting the head come gently forward.
2/. Armchair posture Sit back so the spine is supported. Lean your head against the back of the chair, or leave it upright in a comfortable position. Rest arms palms down on the arms of your chair, or your lap.
3/. The horizontal position Lie flat with your head and knees supported by a cushion. Legs are straight, the feet slightly apart and toes pointing outwards. Rest arms by your side, palms down.
A sample Autogenics exercise
Try to make your environment as relaxing as possible and loosen neckties, waistbands etc. Adopt one of the AT postures.
Close your eyes and make a body scan from toes to head, letting go of tensions and slackening the jaw and neck.
Allow your awareness to focus, in a passive way, on the dominant arm as you repeat the following silently in your mind three times.
"My right arm is heavy" x3 "My left arm is heavy" x3 "Both arms are heavy" x3
Clench your fists and flex your forearms up sharply. Take a deep breath, have a good stretch and open your eyes.