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Autogenic Therapy: A Short Term Therapy for Long Term Gain

by Sonia Saunders(more info)

listed in mind matters, originally published in issue 120 - February 2006

Consequences of Stress

Are we not stressed out just seeing and hearing the word repeated over and over again? Newspapers filled on a daily basis with stories about road-rage, violence, the breakdown of relationships, problems at work. We all feel life is more stressful in the 2lst century, but does it have to be? Stress is usually thought of as a negative and destructive force in our lives, which can eventually lead to our physical or mental breakdown.

But sometimes we forget that the main chemicals produced in the body when we are under stress – adrenalin and noradrenalin – are also produced when we are excited and stimulated, such as in sport, competitions and during sexual activity. So, some stress is a natural and healthy part of our lives and we would live like automatons without it. It is only when the stress levels are in excess of what feels comfortable for us and when stress is prolonged, that we start to suffer various symptoms, physically and emotionally. Examples of these symptoms are high blood pressure, allergies, headaches, chest pains, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome and many anxiety states. Then, as the immune system continues to deteriorate because of continuous stress, chronic and life-threatening illness can result.

However, all of us have different stress thresholds, much like pain thresholds, and what one person will experience as a stressful situation, another might enjoy as pleasure. Trying to control the symptoms of stress with tranquilizers, however, has at last been recognized by patients and doctors, too, as just 'papering over the cracks' of the problem; the underlying causes often never get dealt with properly. Then stronger and stronger medication is called for as the body becomes used to it, and trying to kick the habit becomes the real problem! Tranquilizers and anti-depressants certainly do nothing to contribute to our long-term health and wellbeing.

In the last ten years or so, however, people have become wiser and are now seeking alternative ways to help cope with stress. We can all benefit from seeing a therapist from time to time for a massage, reflexology, hypnotherapy or acupuncture session when we are feeling stressed and exhausted. But all of these cost time and money, and sometimes it feels more stressful trying to get to an appointment and wishing we hadn't made it in the first place.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to know how to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life by relying on ourselves, and to have a tool at our disposal right now, one that will positively contribute to our health and our ability to copy with stress in the future.

Autogenic Therapy and How it Works

Autogenic Therapy, also known as Autogenic Training (AT), is probably one of the most powerful techniques for dealing with stress ever developed in the West. It is an extremely thorough and comprehensive deep relaxation technique developed in l932 by a German psychiatrist, Dr Johannes Schultz. Dr Schultz used hypnotherapy to help his severely disturbed patients to relax. He observed that, after investigation, patients reported a comfortable sensation of heaviness in their limbs and torso, and a feeling of diffuse warmth throughout the body. Quite simply explained, the warmth is the result of vasodilation in the peripheral arteries; the sensation of heaviness is caused by a letting go of tension in the body's muscles. Dr Schultz developed a series of simple exercises or auto-suggestive commands to allow one to switch from an internal state of anxiety to one of peace within a very short time, as we learn to become the passive observer of our body and mind, without needing 'to achieve'. The exercises developed by Schultz are the ones we still use today. They are simplicity itself, but can produce very profound results. AT very much appeals to a Western mind because, unlike many forms of meditation and yoga, it has no cultural or religious overtones and requires no special clothing or unusual postures or practices. It is simply, as the name implies, generated from within.

I 'discovered' AT when I was practising as a clinical aromatherapist. Whilst treating clients with massage, I sometimes found that they could not physically let go of their bodies sufficiently to enjoy the massage. They were amazed when I told them that their arms or legs were holding a great deal of tension. This made me realize that they needed to train themselves both to be aware of their bodily stress and to learn how to 'let go'.

The basic AT exercises are usually taught over eight to ten sessions, once a week, in a small group or individually. There are three basic postures that have been found to be the optimum positions for practising AT: sitting in an armchair, slumped forward like a rag-doll on a stool, or lying on the floor, allowing gravity to support you. I have found the most popular to be the armchair position, as it is so practical, allowing a quick session almost anywhere. Clients will keep a specific diary of their practice, which is discussed at each weekly session, and will assist the therapist in tailoring the training uniquely to each client. During the course, clients are encouraged to practice AT three times a day for about l0-l5 minutes each session. Once they have completed the course, many clients limit their practice to just once a day, if they feel that keeps them on the straight and narrow.

It has been demonstrated by bio-feedback that the brainwave patterns of a person practising AT actually alter very quickly from active to passive, even in the short sessions during the first few weeks of the course. This meditative state allows great rest and recuperation to occur in all the organs of the body, and also allows the brain to switch from our normal left-brained state of active analytical thought, mathematical and language skills to the right (non-dominant) side, which is responsible for intuitive thought, imagination and creativity, and helps us develop a loving, compassionate and humanitarian nature. This side of our brain, more active when we are children, seems to become neglected as we grow older.

Over 3,000 scientific papers have documented the effectiveness of AT. It is known to have numerous psychological applications, including anxiety states, insomnia, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, as well as many physical ailments such as asthma, skin conditions, hypertension, colitis, arthritis, migraine and irritable bowel syndrome, amongst many others. People who have learnt AT commonly report better health and emotional balance, greater coping ability, increased wellbeing, improved quality of sleep and reduction of anxiety levels.

Case Studies

Three short profiles will show the diversity of problems that may be helped through AT:

David, a 28-year old advertising executive, had suddenly started becoming very panicky about his presentation skills in front of new clients, especially when his boss was at the meetings. His hands would literally shake when it was the moment to speak, and he was even afraid of picking up his glass of water for fear that it would spill. He was also finding that a long-forgotten childhood skin condition (eczema) would return a few days before these presentations, which added to his discomfort and lack of confidence.

As part of the course, we discussed his real fears about his job and future career, and also his relationship with his girlfriend. At the end of the eight-weeks course, he felt he had a better balance in his emotional life and was not so 'hung-up' about some of the issues that had 'freaked him out' previously. He wrote to me some time later saying that he was still practising AT every day and was now comfortable in the boardroom situation. His eczema rarely appeared.

Sarah, a primary school teacher in her mid-30s, came to see me suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which she was finding debilitating and very embarrassing in her work situation, as she had to leave her class and rush off to the toilet frequently. She was also having problems getting pregnant and was worried that her biological clock was ticking rapidly. By sheer coincidence (or not!), she found she was pregnant by session six of the course (I have had one client who thought she would never get pregnant and actually became pregnant after the initial assessment session!). In addition, her bouts of IBS gradually lessened as she learned how to get in touch with and deal with the situations that caused her stress in a practical way.

Peter, a lawyer of 55, came suffering with severe bladder pain. He had gone for every test and investigation available and was told nothing could be found to account for the pain and that it was probably due to stress. He admitted he had many personal problems and to escape from all these stresses, he had become a workaholic. I observed at our first session that he talked extremely quickly and held a great deal of tension in his facial muscles, and was unable to talk without holding his hands very stiffly. Over the weeks I watched him physically unwind before my eyes. He was a model client, practising three times a day almost without fail, and enjoyed his sessions in the office particularly, where they would revitalize him for the rest of the day. By the end of the course, his bladder pain had completely gone and physically, he looked like a different person. He was even taking the odd day off from work and was enjoying having time for himself for the first time for years.

AT – a Skill for Life

These notes may give the impression that Autogenic Training is a panacea for all ills. Some people enjoy the benefit of the course quickly and for others it is a longer and cumulative process before the effects become noticeable.

Once learned, AT is a skill for life. It is simple and a pleasure to do, almost anywhere: at work, whilst waiting for the dentist or doctor, or sitting on a plane. There are additional exercises that can even be practised, for example, whilst driving the car (eyes open of course!), or talking on the phone. For some people, it is the first and only look at what has caused them stress in their lives and a safe way of getting in touch with their true emotions and feelings, and discharging them safely with the help of the therapist. Others may decide to investigate these stresses further. The training is an inexpensive and effective method of helping yourself to attain peace, serenity and relaxation and to keep yourself both physically and emotionally as healthy as you possibly can for the rest of your life.

Further Information

The British Autogenic Society, the training and governing body for Autogenic Therapists, is based at the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital where AT has been taught on the NHS in groups for 20 years. For further information, contact the administrator on Tel: 020 7391 8908;
www.autogenic-therapy.org.uk. Also please see Educational Resource listing on page 56.

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About Sonia Saunders

Sonia Saunders, Chair of the British Autogenic Society, is a qualified Autogenic Psychotherapist and has been teaching AT for nearly ten years. She is passionate about the training, having seen many clients make positive changes to their lives. She has been working in the field of complementary health for nearly 20 years, her background training being in relationship counselling and aromatherapy. She may be contacted via ssaunders@interfis.com

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