HELP FOR STRESS DISORDERS
By Eleanor Eggers, Ph.D., LP, BCB, (Senior Fellow)
Autogenic Training is very simple and straightforward, and it is easy to learn and to practice. It does not require any special abilities or talents. What it does require is a great deal of patience and persistence. It helps enormously if you have a solid faith or belief that it will benefit you. It is interesting to do because you feel things happening in your body, and it is enjoyable because the sensations you feel are pleasant and unusual. It is based on the fact that whenever you focus your attention in a very passive manner on your own body (or a part of it), your body and mind become very relaxed. This feeling of relaxation is very pleasant.
There are six standard “formulas”. These are what you will be learning and practicing. They are the following:
1. My arms and legs are heavy.
2. My arms and legs are warm.
3. My heartbeat is calm and regular.
4. It breathes me.
5. My solar plexus (abdomen) is warm.
6. My forehead is cool.
A seventh formula is optional:
Background formulas are optional:
These formulas have been developed through extensive experimentation and research and must not be changed. For example, you must not say “hot” instead of “warm” or “cold” instead of “cool”. Sometimes it is useful to reduce the effect by saying “a little warm”, but you must never try to increase the effect by saying “very warm” or “hot”. As you develop skill in using the formulas, you may omit words in the formulas, but you must not change the words. Doing so could produce unpleasant symptoms.
Any of the formulas can be omitted, but the words should not be changed (except to reduce the effect), and formulas of your own invention should not be experimented with. If any of the formulas cause problems, they can, and should, be omitted.
The formulas are based on knowledge of the physiological components of the relaxation response. When we become deeply relaxed, the conditions mentioned in the formulas do actually occur automatically. In practicing Autogenic Training, we develop the ability to be aware of them and to enhance them.
It is possible to practice Autogenic Training in any position which is comfortable for you. However, there are three positions which have been found to be the most effective:
1. Lying on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing down. Your elbows should be slightly bent. Your legs should not be crossed and your feet should be pointing slightly outward. Your hands should not be touching your body, as this would present a distraction.
2. Sitting in a comfortable chair which has a back and arms. You can rest your head against the headrest if there is one. If not, you can let your head drop forward a little. You can rest your arms on the chair arms unless this results in raising your shoulders. If it does, you can rest your hands on your thighs, making sure that your hands do not touch each other.
3. Sitting on a chair or bench which does not have a back. You can sit up straight and then slump a little and drop your head forward slightly. You can bend your elbows a little and spread your legs slightly. You can rest your hands on your thighs, making sure that your hands do not touch each other. Your legs should not be crossed, and your feet should be flat on the floor.
We will use the first position--lying down--because that is the most effective one for most people. You can use the other two later when you want to practice Autogenic Training wherever you happen to be. If you tend to go to sleep too soon while doing your practice, you may want to do your practice sitting up instead.
Where to Practice
Try to find a room or area where you will not be disturbed by other people talking to you, phones ringing, or children or animals wanting your attention. Your bedroom with the door closed is probably the best place. In order for you to be able to devote your entire attention to practicing complete passivity and relaxation, you need to know that you will not be disturbed.
Most people benefit from being surrounded by silence. A few find that it helps to have the background noise of birds singing outside their window or the white noise produced by a noise machine which can be adjusted to emit the sounds of ocean waves, rainfall, or a waterfall. They can then focus their attention very passively on these neutral sounds instead of on their active thoughts. However, it is best to get accustomed to silence so that you do not get dependent on any particular kind of sound.
I have found the following “crutches” to be extremely helpful, and I recommend them highly:
1. If the room is the least bit chilly, be sure to cover yourself with a lightweight blanket so that it will be easy for your arms and legs to get warm(er). When one lies quietly for a while, the body tends to cool off, especially in a cool room. It is not “cheating” to protect your body from the cool air. This will not be necessary in a warm room.
2. It is important to cover your eyes. This can be accomplished by using an eyemask or a washcloth folded in half. I have found that we get into a relaxed state more quickly and we get into a much deeper state of relaxation when we cover our eyes. It is good to block out all light when we sleep too.
When to Practice and How Long to Practice
It is important to practice at least twice a day for about twenty minutes each time. You may want to start with shorter periods at first and gradually work up to twenty minutes or more. You can set an alarm to tell you when the time is up if you want to, but it is not necessary to be precise about the time. Your body will tell you when it has had enough deep relaxation for now or whether it would like to have more.
You can choose any two times that are convenient for you. It is best to do one practice in the morning and one in the evening. You could do one in the morning in bed soon after you wake up, and you could do one in the evening after you get home from work. You could even do one in bed before you go to sleep if you can stay awake long enough to complete your practice. Or you could do one in the middle of the night if you wake up and want to practice Autogenic Training for a while before you go back to sleep. You will want to spread your practice periods apart by as much time as possible because there is a carryover effect after each one. The carry-over effect is short at first but gradually lengthens as time goes by until each one carries over to the next one.
While most people experience pleasant feelings of calmness during and after practicing Autogenic Training even from the beginning, a few people experience unwanted or odd sensations which Luthe called autogenic discharges. These may consist of such things as muscle twitches, itches, restlessness, sexual thoughts, unhappy memories, or feelings of sadness or anger. Luthe interpreted these as attempts by the body or the brain to get rid of stored-up tension or trauma (psychological or physical) through the process of autogenic normalization. He believed that they were normal and health-promoting.
Experience has shown that these reactions quickly diminish in intensity, duration, and frequency until they disappear during the first few weeks of practice.
If you do experience any such sensations, you can “cancel” and end the session at that point and then return and do your practice a little later. Or you can continue with your session and focus on observing your sensations very passively, simply as a spectator. In all probability those sensations will soon disappear.
Use of Minis
The minis refer to very brief practice periods which involve relaxing several critical parts of the body which are components of the stress response (also called the fight or flight response). They are described in detail in the section on Relaxation Therapy.
They are not part of classical Autogenic Training, but I have found that they contribute significantly to the speed with which the formulas become effective. Therefore, I recommend that you do a quick Mini at the beginning of each practice session. Simply pay attention to your tongue, jaw, lips, and shoulders and let them relax. Let your tongue be limp and resting on the floor of your mouth; let your jaw and lips be loose; let your lips be parted a little bit; and let your shoulders be heavy and down instead of up. At the same time say a portion of your background formula to yourself, such as "calm", "quiet", or "peace". My experience with patients has been that they are more successful at responding quickly to the formulas and "getting into" a state of deep relaxation when they do this.