Blog: Autogenic Training
Posted: April 28, 2022
Author: Alissa Q. Sneed, M.A., TLLP, Gerontology Certificate Student
Description of Autogenic Training (AT)
What is AT?
Autogenic training is a self-hypnosis relaxation technique that can help reduce the symptoms of many health concerns, including depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Autogenic means, "generated from within" and uses the mind to relax the body (Benor, 1996). Autogenic training allows the individual to influence communication between the body and mind, which in turn influences body reactions such as blood pressure, heartbeat, etc. that may not normally be controlled (Payne, 2010).
How do you do it?
Autogenic training is completed in six standard exercises with the intention to induce heaviness in body, warmth in the body, calmness in the heart and breath, softness and warmth in the stomach, and finally, coolness in the forehead (Schultz & Luthe, 1959). The wording of the phrases can be altered to fit your preference (relaxed, calm, peace, etc.), but the goal of each set should remain the same.
Set 1: Heaviness
My right arm is heavy,
Set 2: Warmth
My right arm is warm,
Set 3: Calm Heart
My arms are heavy and warm,
Set 4: Calm Breath
My arms are heavy and warm,
Set 5: Soft and Warm Stomach
My arms are heavy and warm,
Set 6: Cool Head
My arms are heavy and warm,
Historical and Cultural Origins
Autogenic Training was pioneered by German psychiatrist and neurologist, Johannes Schultz in the 1920s and has been commonly used in European countries since its infancy (Benor, 1996). AT made its way to the United States in 1963 by Wolfgang Luthe, who co-authored an AT book in 1959 with Johannes Schultz, and has been increasing in popularity. AT is derived from hypnosis, which was popularized by Franz Mesmer in the 1770s (McKenna, 1993). However, the earliest references of hypnosis were found in the ancient societies of Egypt and Greece. In fact, the term hypnosis was derived from the Greek word, "hypnos" which means "to sleep." The Hindu Vedas, religious texts originating in ancient India, mentioned hypnotic methods around 1500 BC (McKenna, 1993).
Philosophical and Theoretical Foundations
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two main branches, the parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic nervous systems (SNS) commonly referred to as "rest-and-digest" and "flight-or-fight" responses, respectively. The PNS is the body's relaxation system that, as the name suggests, promotes the resting and digestive functions of the body, heart rate and blood pressure are lower, and breathing is calm in this system (Waxenbaum, Reddy, & Varacallo, 2021). The SNS is the body's stress response system, in this process the body's blood pressure and heart rate increases and digestive processes are ceased or interrupted, and breathing is shallow, more rapid, irregular; the SNS response is activated by stress whether it is danger, anxiety, or everyday life stress. Long term activation of the SNS response can cause chronic physical health illnesses including cardiovascular concerns like hypertension, heart disease, and strokes (Waxenbaum, Reddy, & Varacallo, 2021).
Autogenic Training is believed to work similarly to hypnosis and biofeedback. Hypnosis is a trancelike state that resembles sleep, usually induced by a therapist, that includes a level of awareness that increases responsiveness and receptiveness (Orne, 2005). Biofeedback is a relaxation technique used to control body functions that one is not normally able to consciously control (Husney, 2021). AT influences ANS and allows the individual to control body functions that are not consciously controlled and allow the body to exit the SNS and return to the PNS (Benor, 1996).
Literature Review: Effects of AT with Older Adults (aged 60+)
Effects on Hypertension
According to Sumantrie & Limbong, 2020, AT is shows to b beneficial in improving the health of older adults. Results show that there was a significant decrease in blood pressure before and after implementation of AT in the older adult population, indicating that AT is useful for reducing activation of the SNS response (Sumantrie & Limbong, 2020). One limitation noticed in the study was the mixed sample population. The study was administered on nursing students, parents, and older adults due to higher rates of hypertension amongst the three groups. Future research specifically studying the effects of AT on older adults with hypertension is needed to replicate results. Additionally, the study observed the groups before and after treatment implementation but did not have a control group to compare results, to accurately get an idea of the effects of AT versus no treatment given (Sumantrie & Limbong, 2020).
Effects on Cognitions and Emotions
According to Krampen, 1996, AT has significant short-term and long-term effects on development-related emotions and increase positivity about aging, increase feelings of control and empowerment about aging, emotional self-regulation, decreased psychosomatic complaints, and increase internal locus of control. The internal locus of control is the belief that outcomes of one's actions are results of one's own abilities ("master of my own fate") (Krampen, 1996). Two significant limitations of the study were the study's location and isolated sample. The study was conducted in Europe and the sample population was German older adults (no racial identity indicated), who were not receiving psychiatric or psychopharmaceutical treatment, who were living in their own home, and were socioeconomically middle class. A replicated study with a more diverse sample population is needed to truly understand the effects of AT on cognitive-emotional status of older adults.
The governing body of AT therapists is the British Association for Autogenic Training and Therapy (BAFATT) developed in the 1984 but since 1999, have been known as the British Autogenic Society (BAS). The BAS has a standardized method of teaching AT and training AT therapists. Previously, to become an AT therapist, one must have had a degree in medicine, psychology, counseling, nursing, or social work and undergone a three-year part-time course to develop clinical competence (Benor, 1996).
However, as of 1999, a certification in AT is not required to practice the method in the United States. By following the six sets to induce the desired effects, AT can be applied to daily self-care routine. However, there are some restrictions for age, specific chronic physical illnesses, and severe and persistent mental disorders.
Self-Care for Social Workers
Autogenic Training can be applied to daily self-care routine for social workers as well! Social work and human health professions experience statistically more stress than any other profession and lifetime burnout rate of 75% (Autonomous, 2021). As mentioned, long-term activation of the SNS can increase risk of heart disease, hypertension, and stroke, as well as insomnia, obesity, and mental disorders such as depression and anxiety (Autonomous, 2021; Waxenbaum, Reddy & Varacallo, 2021). AT has been shown to be effective in reducing activation of SNS response and in the long-term reduce the risk of physical and mental disorders (Benor, 1996).
Application in Practice
Contraindications & Modifications
AT is not recommended for individuals that are not experiencing reality-based orientation, including in a state of active psychosis, delusional states, paranoia, and dissociative states. Additionally, AT is not recommended for individuals with severe heart conditions or children under 5 years of age without medical monitoring (Benor, 1996). Some modifications to practice of AT include variations in language and sets, eyes closed or opened with gaze lowered, and laying down or sitting, in the most comfortable position.
Application in Social Work
AT can be implemented in practice personally or professionally, with limitations in mind. AT is aligned with NASW value of Dignity and Worth of the Person, in that it "enhances the client's capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs" (National Association of Social Workers, 2022). AT has been shown to increase empowerment about aging in older adults and to increase their internal locus of control, therefore increase their capacity to change and address their own needs (Krampen, 1996).