Autogenic Training to Calm the Mind and Body
Herbert Benson, in his influential book “The Relaxation Response” listed autogenic training as one of the practices that can trigger the natural state of rest and recuperation. By learning autogenic training and practising it regularly it becomes possible to calm your mind and body at will.
You learn six simple formulas directed at calming yourself in a way that is in tune with your innate ability to switch from “Ready for action” to “Rest and recuperation”. It does not require any tensing and releasing of muscles. It is a gentle practice.
Over 8 or 10 sessions lasting between one and two hours you will learn each formula. You will be asked to practice at home for no more than a few minutes at a time, and you can practice anywhere.
TOP The Origins of AT
Autogenic Therapy, or AT, was developed in the early years of the twentieth century by the psychiatrist and neurologist Dr. Johannes Schultz.
Schultz went to Lausanne in Switzerland to study medicine in 1907, and began his specialisation in psychiatry in 1909. In the same year, he wrote a review of Freud’s Psychoanalysis. The influence and support which Schultz received from Freud is evident in his account of their first meeting:
“Freud looked at me, sizing me up and said: ‘Surely you do not believe that you could heal?’ whereupon I replied: ‘By no means, but I think that, like a gardener, I could remove obstacles hindering a person’s true development.’ ‘Then we will understand each other,’ answered Freud, ending our conversation with a charming smile.”
From Dr Karl Wongstchowski’s article ‘Schultz the Man’, Newsletter June 1987, British Association for Autogenic Training and Therapy
In 1912 Otto Binswanger, whom he succeeded as Professor of Psychiatry in 1915, invited Schultz to Jena.
Schultz was deeply influenced by the pioneering research of Professor Oscar Vogt (1870-1959), a psychiatrist and neuro-physiologist who had dedicated his life to psychosomatic medicine, or what he called the ‘Mind-Body problem’. In his research, Vogt had noted that patients practising simple verbal exercises to induce hypnosis reported a state of well-being. Complaints such as headache, fatigue and anxiety tended to disappear. In addition, many patients reported feelings of heaviness and agreeable sensations of warmth.
Schultz had systematically pursued the question of whether patients could achieve a similar state without hypnosis, by simply directing attention to sensations of heaviness and warmth in the limbs. He found that they could, under certain circumstances, by using passive concentration combined with simple verbal formulae that implied heaviness and warmth. Schultz published his early research findings on what he called Autogenic Organ Exercises in 1912.
In 1924 Schultz moved to Berlin and was in close contact with Vogt, who was conducting his research at the Neuro-Biological Institute for Brain Research. Schultz continued his research, as well as practising as a psychiatrist and undergoing his own Training Analysis. In 1932, Schultz published the first edition of Autogenic Therapy, which detailed the clinical application of the six Standard Autogenic Formulae, which still form the core of AT today.
In the late 1940s Dr. Wolfgang Luthe became a student of Schultz, studying psychosomatic medicine and Autogenic Therapy. In the 1950s, Luthe emigrated to Montreal, Canada where he continued to develop Autogenic Therapy as Assistant Professor of Psychophysiology at the University of Montreal.
Schultz and Luthe collaborated in writing and collated research into all aspects of Autogenic Therapy. In 1969, a year before Schultz’s death, they published five further volumes on Autogenic Therapy which constitute the seminal work on the subject. Since then, several editions of these volumes have been published in nine languages.
In 1978 Dr. Malcolm Carruthers and psychotherapist Vera Diamond studied Autogenic Therapy with Dr. Luthe in Montreal and brought the method to Britain. The first Autogenic Training courses were held in Queen Anne Street in London in 1979, and The British Association for Autogenic Training and Therapy was founded in 1984. This became the British Autogenic Society (BAS) in 1999. Autogenic Therapy is now practised in several countries around the world, but especially in Europe and Japan. Centres such as the Schultz Institute in Berlin and the Oscar Vogt Institute at Kyushu University, Japan, are pre-eminent in the field of AT research, development and training. The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (formerly the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital) has offered AT to patients suffering a wide variety of illnesses for over 20 years with very positive results.
TOP The AT Process
As clients practise AT over a period of weeks and months, and make it a part of their lifestyle, they report a number of changes in the direction of greater health, balance, emotional stability and freedom from anxiety and stress. These reports are confirmed by a number of objective studies into the physiological changes accompanying regular use of AT. Central to the changes brought about by AT is passive concentration, the detached but alert state of mind in which AT exercises are carried out.
Stress and modern life
As the pace of everyday life increases, day-to-day experience can often become a struggle to achieve goals, meet deadlines, organise our time, and perform satisfactorily for colleagues and family. Whilst these activities have their place, focusing on them exclusively can lead to anxiety, frustration, feelings of failure, and a feeling that life is being driven by events beyond our control. We can become oblivious to warning signs from our bodies and subconscious minds, and also to the emotional needs of friends and family. The wider meanings of life can be lost.
Fight and flight
The ‘fight and flight’ response is an ancient physiological reaction to a perceived threat or challenge, such as the sighting of a potential prey or predator. Pupils dilate, heartbeat increases, adrenaline is secreted, the bronchi of the lungs dilate, gastric movement decreases, muscle strength is increased. The system is primed for physical exertion, and energy is diverted from non-urgent tasks such as digesting food.
The exertion will typically be short-lived, the crisis or challenge will pass, and the system will eventually switch to the ‘rest and digest’ state. Pupils will contract, heartbeat will reduce, the digestive process will be stimulated.
It is easy to see how such a system suited our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In modern life, however, we are constantly exposed to challenges that do not lead to a burst of physical activity, and that do not diminish in a short time.
Stresses such as living with the threat of impending redundancy, or waiting for the results of medical tests, may continue for weeks or months without respite. The perceived threat to the mind-body system of a row in the board room or in the home does not lead naturally to running away or fighting – at least not in any socially acceptable way – so we are left to simmer. The advice to ‘go for a brisk walk to calm you down’ in these situations therefore has some biological wisdom behind it.
Our human grasp of language and logic gives us the ability to predict threats which are quite abstract, to imagine the outcome of those predictions, and to react to our imaginings as if it were real. A pet cat or dog awaiting the result of a critical x-ray or blood test has none of the anticipatory fear that a human in the same situation would experience. In this sense, we, as humans, are the victims of our own ability to imagine and to think.
Hence the need for a tool such as AT, which enables us to move into a ‘rest and digest’ state at will.
The coping effects of AT
Practising AT and passive concentration regularly encourages a shift to a different mode of perception, to a witnessing self that observes without judging or striving. This will be a novel experience to many AT clients, and will require careful explanation and support from the therapist.
There are no right or wrong results during the practice of AT, and carrying out the exercises with the right posture and mental attitude is all that is required.
Regular users of AT report:
- a freedom from anxiety
- a greater resilience to emotional and physical upsets
- a calm centre within themselves and a returning sense of being in control of their lives
- greater spontaneity in their relationships
- a freedom from unwanted habits
There may also be an increase in creativity and openness to intuition. People may become more aware of and open to emotions, feelings and memories, including disturbing memories which may have been repressed for some time.
Again, the role of the therapist is crucial in helping the client to manage and work through any ‘unfinished business’ that may surface during AT.
This expanded access to feelings, memories, intuition, and creativity suggests an opening of communication across the corpus callosum, the connecting bridge between the two brain hemispheres. Analysis of central nervous-system activity during AT has indeed suggested an increased balancing of the left and right hemispheres, together with an increase in Alpha wave activity and an upward shift into the Theta region.
Physiological tests also support reports of reduced stress by users of AT, with measured drops in blood pressure and cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’).
TOP Clinical Applications of AT
AT has wide potential for the treatment of various medical conditions. The treatment of a number of these conditions with AT have been closely documented by Luthe (see references below).
For general problems, such as insomnia and free-floating anxiety, significant improvement can often occur within a few weeks. Clients can often be freed from reliance on tranquillisers and hypnotic drugs. More deep-seated problems may require more time and patience on behalf of client and therapist.
Conditions that have responded favourably include migraine, arthritis, colitis, IBS and high blood pressure. Some diabetics have halved the amount of insulin they take after regular use of AT, and in many cases other forms of medication can be reduced.
All candidates for AT meet the therapist before the course for a detailed assessment. If a client has been referred specifically for a medical condition, or if a medical problem emerges during the assessment, then careful monitoring of the client’s condition during and after training is indicated. Unless the therapist is medically qualified, this calls for close co-operation between the therapist and the client’s physician.
Not a superficial relaxing technique
AT is available as part of the National Health Service (NHS) at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine where physicians and psychotherapists have offered courses for over 20 years. Studies conducted here, at Exeter University and around the world have concluded that AT is a useful tool to help reduce anxiety, improve sleep quality while increasing positive emotions and a sense of personal control.
In Dublin, Ireland it has been used to help treat infertility, after it was found that a proportion of women who failed to conceive had high levels of the stress hormone prolactin, which acts as a natural contraceptive. Prolactin levels dropped and conception rates increased after regular use of AT.
Dr. Malcolm Carruthers, who pioneered the use of AT in the UK, says, ‘It’s a bridge between alternative and conventional medicine…It has to be emphasised that this is not a superficial relaxation technique. It actually works at quite a deep level. It’s good medicine, but it’s powerful medicine if it’s properly applied.’
A study by Dr Carruthers, Health promotion by mental and physical training, British Journal of Holistic Medicine, 1984: 1 (2: 142-147) has shown that regular use of AT has a significant effect in reducing the resting pulse rate and systolic and diastolic blood pressure, as well as cholesterol, triglyceride and free fatty acid levels. A long-term study (Carruthers M, Patel et al Trial of relaxation in reducing coronary risk: 4 year follow-up, BMJ, 290, 1985) has shown it to be effective in reducing the risk of heart attack.
Kermani’s study of HIV-infected individuals (Stress, emotions, autogenic training and AIDS) has shown that AT helped patients to control symptoms such as pain, night sweats, diarrhoea and weight loss. Users of AT also reported an improved quality of life and a more positive outlook. Kermani also reported that individuals had an average survival time of 18 months greater than those reported elsewhere.
The table below describes some of the areas in which AT has been successfully applied.
|Type of disorder||Specific Applications|
|Cardiovascular||Cardiac arrhythmias, ischaemic heart disease, angina, recovery from myocardial infarction, hypertension, disorders of peripheral circulation, blushing, cardioneurosis|
|Respiratory||Asthma, hyperventilation syndrome, nervous cough, recurrent infections|
|Gastrointestinal||Functional disorders of deglutition, food allergy, dyspepsia, peptic ulceration, irritable bowel syndrome, some biliary disorders, ulcerative colitis.|
|Genitourinary||Bladder disorders, sexual dysfunction, pregnancy|
|Musculoskeletal||Rheumatoid Arthritis, non-articular rheumatism, arthralgia, degenerative joint disease, low-back syndrome, pain-tension syndromes|
|Endocrine and metabolic||Diabetes, thyroid disorders, some lipid disorders, some forms of infertility, premenstrual syndrome, auto-immune disorders (HIV and AIDS)|
|Neurological||Headache, migraine, tremors, facial spasm, blepharospasm, neuralgias and phantom limb pains, brain injuries, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, Parkinsonism|
|Psychological||Anxiety, phobic or free-floating anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, tranquilliser addiction, behavioural problems, panic disorder, stress syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder, unresolved grief, eating disorders, distress of chronic illness, some chronic fatigue states|
* O’Moore, Harrison, Murphy & Carruthers, Psychosomatic aspects in idiopathic infertility: Effects of treatment with Autogenic Training, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 27, p145-151, 1983
* M. Carruthers, Health promotion by mental and physical training, British Journal of Holistic medicine 1985; 1(2): p142-147
* K. S. Kermani, Stress, emotions, autogenic training and AIDS, British Journal of Holistic medicine 1987; 2: p203-215
* Dr Johannes Schultz & Dr Wolfgang Luthe, Autogenic Therapy Vols 1 – 6, Grune & Stratton, New York, 1969
TOP Non-Clinical Applications of AT
In addition to its capacity to enhance the healing and recuperative powers of the body, AT appears to rebalance our mental faculties and bring closer harmony between the analytical left hemisphere of the brain and the more emotional, inspirational and creative right hemisphere.
The result seems to be an inner calmness, a sense of well-being, and a detachment that brings out the ‘best of both worlds’. Clients of AT report a greater access to feelings and intuition, but also an increased capacity for objectivity and rational thought, including an objectivity about their own emotional responses.
In short, AT seems to enhance whole brain thinking and feeling, which may explain the benefits it can bring in many walks of life. Artists, writers and musicians, for example, often report enhanced creativity and imagination.
AT in sport
AT has been used to enhance the performance of athletes in various fields. In his published study on AT, Autogenic Therapy, Luthe described a variety of benefits including improved reaction times and co-ordination, greater endurance and more rapid recuperation.
Experience with European athletes and with British rifle and pistol shooting teams suggest that performance improvements are partly the result of reduced tension and anxiety in the face of competition.
Anecdotal evidence from autogenic therapists backs up the notion of improved performance in sport (golf, horse training, tennis).
AT in business and industry
Research commissioned by the UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has found that up to 5 million people in the UK feel ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed by their work and that a total of 12.8 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2004/5.
AT has been used extensively in industry to reduce the effects of occupational stress. Luthe reported a number of benefits among employees including more restful sleep patterns, improved attitudes to colleagues, greater job satisfaction, increased initiative and productivity, less fatigue, and easier decision-making. Executives reported keener powers of reasoning during protracted negotiations. Colleagues of UK therapists taught AT in Holland to airline crews to combat jet lag and insomnia.
AT in education
Luthe discovered that teaching AT to school children to relieve specific disorders (such as bronchial asthma, enuresis and stuttering) led to a number of other benefits, including improved attention and concentration, better classroom behaviour, and improved test performance. His own post-graduate students reported that they could maintain a higher workload in the face of exams and assignment deadlines if they practised AT regularly.
AT in everyday life
To many, the principal benefit of AT is that it creates a calm centre from which to cope with the stresses of every-day life.
‘I call it the crying over spilt milk syndrome,’ says Autogenic Therapist Jane Bird. ‘When I began learning AT I really did spill some milk and I thought OK, I can mop that up. As I was doing it, I realised I wouldn’t have reacted that way before AT. It doesn’t change situations, but it does alter your reaction to them. It’s ideal for people with assertiveness problems. After AT, people say to me I’m speaking my mind as I never have before and they’re thrilled. It’s a discipline that, once learned, is yours for life. I wish I’d learned it when my children were small. It’s wonderful for pregnancy, as well, because the feelings of calmness and control are transmitted to the baby.’
* Schultz, Dr Johannes H & Luthe, Dr Wolfgang. Autogenic Therapy Vols 1 – 6, Grune & Stratton, New York, 1969
* Vanek, M & Cratty, B J Psychology and the Superior Athlete, McMillan, London, 1970