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April 2017
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What is autogenic training?

Autogenic training, largely known all over the world as a relaxation technique, is a psychosomatic help method created by the scholar J.H. Schultz, from Berlin, Germany, who defined it as a ‘method of self-relaxation from psychical concentration.’ If practised properly and constantly, A.T. (the acronym for autogenic training) can help you to achieve self-suggestion and provide training for psycho-physical change, improve self understanding and it represents a very powerful resource for helping the mind to both improve everyday performances and relieve various types of psychosomatic discomfort.

The beginning and principles

1932 is the official birth year of A.T. and it was published in its founding piece of work called ‘Das autogene training’, in which the results of many studies carried out over many years by the inventor, Schultz, were brought together along with research, which was influenced by the fields of hypnosis and psychoanalysis. After the first stage of training, A.T. exercises help you to be able to receive immediate psycho-physical benefits thanks to the repetition of autogenic formulas and the effect of long-term change of negative psycho-physical processes that may be the root of many psychosomatic disorders. This technique is therefore an instrument of change that operates on three levels:

  1. a physiological level, promoting a re-equilibrium of the vegetative nervous system and endocrine system, both of which are closely related to emotional experiences;
  2. a physical level, improving the state of well-being and health in general;
  3. a psychological level, helping to restructure ones negative reactions and improving some psychological experiences.
Through A.T., one creates an ever-growing psycho-physical equilibrium, particularly regarding psychosomatic functions (for example, emotions, somatic states related to involuntary muscle contractions) which are mediated through the autonomic nervous system. The exercises involved in A.T. tend to relax this part of the body, which guarantees psycho-physiological activation and reduces over-production of certain hormones, like adrenaline, which enters into the bloodstream when stressed.

In the same way, autogenic training allows you to gradually obtain better awareness (and consequently better control) of involuntary muscle contractions (for example, respiration), freeing them more and more from negative, voluntary control, which stress can induce on muscles.

The charge of accumulated physical and psychological tension is released through so called autogenic releases, that is, those transient phenomena, of psychological or somatic origin, which tend to become less and less apparent until disappearing completely during the course of A.T. and which are linked to the capability A.T. has to free and decongest overloaded cerebral areas from stress. For this reason, during the initial stages of carrying out A.T. exercises, one can often notice motor releases (involuntary movements, coughing, laughing, spasms), auditory releases (ringing in the ears, whistling, noise), vestibular releases (loss of balance, sense of floating) or even affectionate releases (various types of emotions, both positive and negative). Whatever the autogenic releases are, they usually concern somatic areas (muscles, vision, etcetera), or psychological areas (feelings, thought, etcetera) that are overloaded with tension that, in one way or another, gradually diminishes.

‘Auto’ means by yourself and ‘genic’ means generated, therefore the etymology of autogenic training allows us to better explain the objectives, all of which aim to make the person who undergoes this training able to construct training for relaxation, psychological change and control of certain states by him/herself, through the increasing, independent ability of ‘self-suggestion’, which is initially guided and taught by an expert.

The fundamental principle on which autogenic training is based is classic conditioning, that is, a psychological learning method exposed by I. Pavlov in other contests. Through this type of learning it is possible, by repeating exercises, to obtain a relationship between a formula or mental exercise (neutral stimuli to begin with and then conditioned stimuli) and a physiological or psychological state (unconditioned response), which is called a ‘conditioned response’ following experimentation of specific concentration and self-suggestion techniques in protected and positive conditions (unconditioned stimuli). The basis of A.T. underlines the importance of constantly repeating exercise training in the initial stage and the necessity to encourage, from the beginning, ‘autogenicity’ when producing the responses to the exercises, without becoming dependent on the trainer or a guiding voice. 

Other important, neuropsychological processes seem to interfere in the training phase because of the psycho-physical change produced through autogenic training.

An important phenomenon concerns the memory’s ability to recall physical sensations evoked through mental images, and make these memories current and real, even in the absence of concrete stimuli. According to studies on visual intelligence, carried out by Ian Robertson, visual intelligence comes from our brains’ tendencies to activate, through imaginative stimuli, the same areas which are activated by real stimuli. Therefore, imagining something heating up a part of your body (hot water, for example) can result in physiological responses similar to those that a real heat source would produce (that is, an increase in temperature and blood flow to the area in question).

The principle of ‘ideoplasy’ works in a similar way and it explains how it is possibile to produce micromovements through the vivid and trained skill of imagining real muscle movements. In fact, this happens every day in non-verbal communication and it allows people to respond to muscle control in A.T.

Exercises and the usefulness of autogenic training
Autogenic training exercises come from one of two categories: those that make up the more well-known ‘inferior autogenic training’ and those that are a part of ‘superior autogenic training’.

The first category, also known as I.A.T., includes six basic exercises, two fundamental ones and four complementary exercises, all of which are carried out after the introductory exercise. This introductory exercise is a calming exercise and it is very important since it lets the pupil reach a calm initial state in which he/she will be able to file away any worries and thoughts, allowing the pupil to experience other exercises in an efficient and appropriate way. If this psychological state is not reached, the pupil will not have the right energy and mental conditions to allow him/her to completely concentrate on the desired effects of the exercises. 

This exercise is very useful for learning to control states of general anxiety or confusion and panic, since it lets the individual improve his/her ability to channel mental energy within him/herself, which usually disperses outwards, and which is guided by centripetal forces which catch the attention of elements that fuel negative and thoughts and experiences. 

The heaviness exercise is a useful tool for reaching a state of muscular relaxation and allows the pupil to become aware of subconscious muscle tensions and the psychological experiences which tend to create them, and which also cause psychosomatic problems such as pains and cramps. It is therefore extremely useful for addressing problems related to pain, muscle tension headaches, problems with stress, dizzy spells related to tension accumulated in the neck or for dealing with insomnia.

The heat exercise allows pupils to obtain a change in circulation to various muscle areas, deepening the state of relaxation which can be reached through the previous exercise. This exercise is useful for those who suffer from disorders related to bad circulation and can be a good way to mentally warm up muscles which will be used in physical exertion.

Through the heart exercise, the pupil can put his/her internal rhythm in touch with the part of the body which is symbolically called ‘the centre of emotions’. It is not always easy to carry out but it is very important for encouraging contact and gradual acceptance of both one's own emotional life and human nature. Results which can be obtained by practising this exercise properly have important, positive effects on relieving somatisations regarding central circulatory problems, like tachycardia for example, which occur because of anxiety-inducing situations and which are one of the fundamental components of panic attacks.

With the breathing exercise, the pupil learns how not to let the respiratory function be affected by psychological aspects, which usually tend to change it. This exercise is also very useful in cases of somatic problems related to anxiety, since these problems tend to occur after a relapse in the respiratory rhythm (usually accelerated) resulting in poor oxygenation and consequential symptoms like dizziness or feeling faint. The symbolism of breathing as the source of life also makes this exercise useful for those with depression and in cases in which pupils are deep in vicious circles, the negative energy of which can cause apnoea or slow breathing which, in turn, create new negative emotions related to the physical feelings experienced following poor breathing, life experiences and foreign bodies entering the body through respiration.

The solar plexus exercise is an exercise involving many internal organs, such as the intestine, liver, pancreas, spleen, kidneys and adrenal glands, and it involves channelling everything towards the same nerve ganglion which mediates their functioning. Carried out with one hand on the abdomen, but touching the sternum too so as to touch and be aware of the area which will be worked on, this exercise allows the patient to work on promoting better functioning of the vital organs involved, as well as reducing tensions of a psychological nature, which are often the cause of gastric and digestive problems. Furthermore, this exercise increases contact with physical sensations associated with psychological experiences of acceptance or refusal of certain situations, especially if related to matters which the patient is not completely aware of.

Last but not least is the fresh forehead exercise which effectively completes general relaxation by working on both somatic problems related to bad cerebral circulation, since it encourages vasoconstriction and therefore a controlled flow of blood to the brain, and psychological problems, which are felt and experienced as ‘mental heat and overload’. A ‘fresh mind’ is actually a symbol of lucidity and the ability to experience emotions and decisions with the right emotional distance, which can be learnt and experimented with on a psychological and physical level thanks to this exercise.

After learning the inferior autogenic training exercises in detail, supplementary exercises can be learnt, or specific exercises can be carried out which are part of superior autogenic training.

After correctly learning this technique, you can look to a specialised operator or, in cases where A.T. is being used for reasons related to change, improving behaviour or for dealing with psychological or psychosomatic problems, you can turn to a psychologist who is an expert in teaching and practicing this technique. Lastly, there is also the possibility to follow a psychotherapeutic course with specialists who use so called autogenic psychotherapy.

Fields where this technique can be applied

Improving your knowledge about A.T. exercises allows you to better understand the numerous application possibilities which have been developed. Autogenic training originally came from the field of clinical psychology and psychosomatics in order to deal with problems such as:
  • neurovegetative, functional and somatisation disorders (headaches, tachycardia, circulatory and respiratory problems and digestive problems);
  • phobias and anxiety disorders;
  • tics or stuttering;
  • sleeping disorders (apnoea, insomnia).
Soon enough, followers and practitioners of A.T. experimented with exercises in other sectors. One of the first examples of this concerns the world of psychology at work; many companies asked to try out this method, experiencing positive effects on workers’ performances and on the company’s ability to limit stress and absences related to stress.

Currently, one of the most important fields where this technique is applied is sport psychology and athletes’ mental preparation, for both athletes in teams (football, basketball, volleyball and water polo teams) and athletes who practise individual sports, for which certain exercises are very useful for their performance and reducing/recovering from injuries. This is the case for skiing, baseball, tennis, fencing and some martial arts in which this technique is very effective for controlling concentration. 

This technique has also been an integral part of birth preparation courses for many years and if previously learnt, it can be very useful for the woman to manage her emotions and control her breathing and pain. 

Finally, the most recent, but not uncommon, applications of this technique must be remembered with curiosity and interest: one of the main applications concerns the field of education in which A.T. becomes a relaxing fairytale for young children and this fairytale can be used to address common ‘growing-up problems’, overcoming the limits of normal verbal approaches to these problems. Another recent application of this technique regards cosmetic treatments, especially those used for acne nervosa or stress, as well as circulatory problems, or simply for relaxation and general well-being, which can be combined with treatments carried out in beauty salons or spas. 

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