Autogenic training is a therapy that trains a person to access his/her own physical relaxation process, and use it to relieve physical and emotional stress. Originating from research on hypnosis, autogenic training has been compared to yoga and meditation, which influence the body’s autonomic nervous system.
Autogenic Training: What is it?
Autogenic training was developed in the 1920s by German psychologist Johannes Schultz. It was originally designed as a physical relaxation method, but has since been used to treat mental and emotional stress. It works by targeting the physical expression of stress, training the person to gain a level of control over these processes. The individual spends several weeks or months training, in sessions that can last as little as 15 to 20 minutes. It is commonly used in sports psychology and for treating stress, although reports indicate it can be used to treat mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
Autogenic Training Theory
Autogenic training works on the basis of simple psychological and biological principles. It makes use of the fact that the psyche and the body are interdependent. It is also premised on certain mindfulness principles, which it shares in common with other therapies, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Some courses train practitioners in all of these therapies, which they can then use to treat various concerns.
How Does Autogenic Training Suggest the Mind Works?
In the early days of psychoanalysis, the concept of psychosomatics became popular. Initially, it was used in a very speculative way. For example, a psychoanalyst might connect a patient’s chronic pain with the repression of childhood issues. However, over the past century we have learned how the body and mind are connected in a much more basic manner.
We now know that emotions are connected with a combination of physical factors. These include chemical processes, aches and pains, fatigue, and much more. The connection goes two ways. The physical influences emotions, and emotions influence the physical. A common example is the feeling many of us get in our stomachs when particularly anxious about an upcoming event.
Similarly, breathing quickly can amplify anxiety and physical exercise can make us happier. It’s not just a two-way street. Thoughts impact emotions and their physical expression, and emotions impact thoughts.
Autogenic training works on the basis that by managing the physiological responses related to stress, the emotions and thoughts can be relieved.
How Does Autogenic Training Cause Change?
Therefore, autogenic training causes change by teaching the individual to use physical processes, in conjunction with verbal cues, to relax. Sessions focus on learning to regulate one of a range of physical processes, including breathing and warmth, calling attention to the heartbeat, abdominal sensations, and the coolness of the forehead. According to autogenic theory, all of these processes are connected to the body’s response to stress.
Autogenic training is connected to other forms of stress relief and mental illness treatments based on mindfulness concepts. It works on the foundation that feelings are best faced head-on. It is thoughts connected to feelings that turn pain into suffering. For example, the fear that stress will not go away only makes stress worse.
By letting oneself experience the physical sensations, one can strip the feeling of its negative associations. The cause of the feeling does not have to be dealt with in order for the individual to experience relief.
What Happens in an Autogenic Training Session?
Autogenic sessions resemble a training regimen and not traditional therapy. Rather than focus on talking or analyzing problems and challenges, the therapist guides the trainee in learning practical techniques. These techniques are learned over a period of around three months. The trainee is expected to practice every day, for at least fifteen minutes.
Techniques Used in Autogenic Training
In a training session, the therapist instructs the trainee to sit or lie in a comfortable position. This position must promote calm relaxation, although it is important that it does not incline the trainee to fall asleep.
The therapist guides the trainee to focus on and regulate his/her breathing. They begin a process of deep breathing that is both relaxing and controlled. Once their breathing is consistent and measured, the therapist uses verbal cues to direct the trainee’s attention to certain parts of their body. They will focus on one part of the body or one function in each phase of the training.
Sessions will typically focus on the following six techniques:
- Inducing heaviness in the body
- Inducing feelings of warmth
- Calling attention to the heartbeat
- Focusing on and regulating breathing
- Focusing on abdominal sensations
- Calling attention to the coolness of the forehead
The verbal cues used include combinations of assertions such as:
- I am completely calm
- My right arm is heavy
- My heart beats calmly and regularly
- My right arm is warm
The particular verbal cues will depend on the level of training the trainee has received.
At the end of the lesson, the therapist will help the trainee “cancel” the relaxation session. The trainee should feel a sense of calm, along with an increased ability to measure the sensations and processes focused on in the session. The trainee is expected to practice at home, in order for the training to have optimal effect. Each session builds on previous sessions, and the trainee must, therefore, achieve a degree of mastery. The six techniques are taught over an extended period of time and require the full commitment of the trainee in order to be optimally successful.
Does Autogenic Training Work?
Autogenic training is considered an effective therapeutic approach. Since its conception in the 1920s, many studies have investigated the effectiveness of autogenic training. Meta-analyses of these studies suggest that autogenic training is effective for various concerns. However, authors of some analyses note that many studies have been methodologically flawed.
What Kinds of Concerns is Autogenic Training Best For?
Autogenic training is mainly known as an effective treatment for stress. This includes the mental and physical manifestations of stress. Stress migraines and hypertension caused by stress have been effective reduced by autogenic training.
It is similarly useful in treating mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and sleep issues, as well as panic attacks and phobias. By focusing on the physical manifestations of these concerns, individuals are able to find relief without extended periods of psychodynamic forms of therapy.
Furthermore, it has been used to treat chronic pain, by giving individuals the tools to relieve some of the pain by regulating their own responses, as well as to be content in living with pain for which there is no treatment. It is also used for stomach issues and heart palpitations.
Autogenic training is well-known as a technique used in sports psychology, an area in which users need to learn to reduce stress almost on demand. Other therapeutic methods may be too drawn out for athletes who need to perform at peak level on a regular basis.
It can be used in conjunction with other therapies. Trainees who wish to analyze and target the origins of their concerns, while benefiting from the relief offered by the training, may find talk therapies useful. A less popular form of autogenic training that combines it with psychodynamic concepts, known as autogenic analysis, is offered by some practitioners.
How Are Autogenic Training Specialists Trained?
Autogenic training specialists are trained in comprehensive programs, such as the Medical Meditation and Stress Management Certification. This 30 hour program includes courses in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). All of these approaches are based on similar principles to autogenic training, using an increased awareness of the body to treat mental concerns. A course such as DBT is useful for individuals presenting with problems that go beyond the symptoms of stress, such as major depressive episodes and borderline personality disorder. Many autogenic training specialists are therefore capable of assessing whether a client will benefit from autogenic training or requires another kind of therapy.
Certification is awarded by the International Certification Board of Clinical Hypnotherapy (ICBCH), and most popular certification programs are offered under their umbrella.
Concerns/Limitations of Autogenic Training
Autogenic training is widely considered an effective treatment for stress and other concerns. However, it is not a viable treatment for many mental illnesses. Any individual presenting with symptoms of psychosis, delusional behavior, paranoia, and dissociation should not be treated using this approach, as it can amplify the symptoms. This can be true for those suffering from depression, anxiety, and even day-to-day stress, if not taught by a capable trainer. All forms of therapy that require the individual to bring attention to their symptoms can have the opposite effect, considering that they ask the individual to put aside coping techniques such as distraction and numbing. These coping techniques are flawed, but cannot simply be abandoned without adequate training in the healthy alternatives.
Individuals with severe heart problems and diabetes should not be treated using autogenic training.
Important Practitioners in Autogenic Training
Autogenic training was developed by Johannes Schultz, a German psychiatrist, in the 1920s. He developed it based on the hypnosis research of Oscar Vogt, a famous German neurologist, as well as self-experimentation. Wolfgang Luthe popularized autogenic training in North America. His disciple, Luis de Rivera, developed autogenic analysis, which combines it with psychodynamic concepts.
How to Find a Therapist
Finding an autogenic training specialist is possible no matter where you are, although it is easiest in the UK, Japan, and Germany where it is particularly popular. Some universities and hospitals offer individual and group training.
What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?
Any practitioner you see for autogenic training should be certified by the ICBCH. Although you can, technically, train yourself, it is not advised. If you are looking to treat a mental illness or disorder, you should seek out a licensed mental health practitioner, who has experience in working with mental illness.
Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist
Ask a potential therapist about their background in autogenic training, as well as their particular approach. Discuss with them whether they feel autogenic training is the right treatment for your concern. If not, they may be able to provide a more appropriate treatment or recommend someone who can.
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Final Thoughts on Autogenic Training
Autogenic training is an effective therapy for treating a number of concerns. It is most commonly used to treat stress, especially performance related stress experienced by athletes. Studies carried out throughout the past decades have found strong evidence to indicate its usefulness. Be sure to discuss with any potential practitioner whether autogenic training is the appropriate treatment for you.