HELP FOR STRESS DISORDERS
By Eleanor Eggers, Ph.D., LP, BCB, (Senior Fellow)
Please lie down as described above on your bed or recliner chair. If the chair arms are too high for you so that they elevate your shoulders, you can rest your hands on your thighs. Put a cover over your eyes, and put a light blanket over you if the room is chilly.
Simply focus your attention in a very passive way on your right arm (left arm if you are left-handed) When you say “right (left) arm”, include in your mind your whole arm and hand as one unit. (Notice that I say “focus your attention”; I do not say “concentrate” because “concentrating” involves effort, and effort precludes relaxation. The important thing is to be passive.)
Say to yourself (think) over and over slowly for a minute:
My right (left) arm is heavy.
You do not need to set a timer; in fact, it is better not to. Just guess at the time. The exact amount of time is not important. After a while you will develop a sense for how long a minute is. The important thing is to do it for a very short period of time rather than for a long period of time.
Do not say the formula for more than a minute.
While you are repeating this formula over and over to yourself, continue to focus your attention in a very passive way on your right (left) arm. You are not trying to make anything happen. You are simply watching passively so that if you do have some sensation in the arm you will be in a position to notice it.
Probably you will feel nothing at all at first. It may take several days or weeks until you feel something. Then you may feel heaviness or lightness or warmth or tingling or some other relaxation response. It doesn't really matter whether you feel something or not. What matters is that you remain passive and simply observant. Your body will relax when you manage to do that. Remember Jacobson's teaching, “An effort to relax is a failure to relax”. What you are trying to master is complete passivity.
Be sure that you do not prolong your repetition of the formula for more than a minute. Your goal is to produce a relaxation response very quickly, that is, within a minute. It would be counterproductive to repeat the formula for five to ten minutes. That might lead to a feeling of heaviness, but it would prevent you from obtaining a much quicker response eventually. You are working toward being able to put yourself into a state of deep relaxation within a minute, or even a few seconds.
After about a minute, it is necessary to “cancel”. In other words, you need to cancel the passive state of relaxation which you just induced in your body. In order to cancel, you need to do the following in this order:
1. Make fists of both of your hands.
2. Bend and tense both of your arms. (If you have a cover over you, just tense your arms.)
3. Take a deep breath.
4. Open your eyes.
Repeat this exercise two more times (making three times in all), taking about a minute between repetitions to just enjoy being comfortable and alert.
Your practice so far has taken about five minutes altogether, three periods of repeating the formula and two rest periods in between. After the third practice period you do not need to cancel. You may just stay there and relax for fifteen more minutes, making a total practice period of twenty minutes. For the rest of the time do whatever you can to keep your body and mind relaxed and passive. You will get more skilled at this as time goes by. You can focus on different parts of your body and note how relaxed the muscles are, how comfortable, soft, loose, and limp they feel.
You will find that it is very relaxing to simply lie there and watch your breathing without trying to alter it in any way. Do not practice “deep breathing” as this involves making an effort.
Remember that you are trying to be completely passive and inactive. This applies to your thoughts as well as your muscles and your breathing. Try to avoid any active thinking. Active thinking includes any planning, problem solving, figuring things out, or worrying about your own or someone else's situation. You might say to yourself, “My mind is quiet.” Or “My mind is blank.”
Or you could remember pleasant experiences which you have had in the past, such as lying on a beach by the ocean, listening to the breezes in the palm trees and the waves crashing against the shore. You could imagine that you were there or somewhere else just as pleasant and inactive. Avoid visualizing the scene, however, because the act of visualization involves making an effort and tensing the eye muscles.
Inevitably active thoughts will come into your mind. Just let them come and then let them go. Try not to scold yourself for allowing them to appear. It happens to everyone. The trick is to gently push them away again and switch to thinking about your own body or something else very passive and inactive. If unpleasant thoughts come into your mind, just gently let them go again, and perhaps even substitute something pleasant.
At the end of the twenty-minute period of relaxation, you will need to cancel again by making a fist with both hands and bending and tensing your arms, taking a deep breath, and then opening your eyes. (If you have a blanket over you, it is not necessary to bend your arms. Simply tense the muscles in both arms vigorously while making two fists.)
Canceling is necessary if you are going to get up and resume your activities. If you fail to cancel, you may temporarily feel a little dizzy or disoriented when you get up. If you are going to go to sleep or rest for a while it is unnecessary. Also, if you are suddenly disturbed from your relaxation practice by the telephone ringing or someone talking to you, it is not necessary to cancel.
Classical Autogenic Training involves practicing three times a day for about ten minutes each time, making a total of thirty minutes for the day. There is a great deal of research which concludes that two sessions a day of twenty minutes each, or a total of forty minutes for the day, is very effective. That is more practical for most people to do, and that is what my experience has involved. The two protocols are probably equally effective. We do not know if one is better than the other, but I do know that two sessions a day works very well. You can take your choice.
You are free to shorten the practice period if it is too long for you at first. Most of your sensations will be pleasant; but if you experience anything unpleasant, such as restlessness or unhappy memories, you are free to cancel and end the session. You can start again another time.
It is also all right to stay in this pleasant state of relaxation for longer than twenty minutes if you want to. Your body will tell you when it has had enough or if it would like to have more. Probably you should not stay in it for more than an hour at a time.
Sometimes people think that they are not allowed to move. However, you are certainly free to move all you want to. For example, you can cough, sneeze, scratch an itch, or whatever you like. Usually people get to feeling so relaxed that they don't want to move or even so relaxed that they feel they “can't” move.