Autogenic training (AT) is a relaxation technique developed by German psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz and was first published in 1932. Since that time, it has been widely used in clinical practice and research to foster the mind’s ability to produce relaxation in the body. Autogenic means self-generating or produced from within. This reflects the ability to self-produce a relaxed feeling of warmth and heaviness throughout the body by saying various verbal phrases aimed at encouraging a state of physical relaxation and emotional calm. It is considered a form of self-hypnosis and is used to increase relaxation and restore balance in the body. It is a technique often recommended when a health issue is present and when stress is a contributing factor to producing or maintaining health issues.
WHAT IT IS
AT involves learning specific phrases that are repeated several times as silent thoughts to oneself. These phrases are performed in a detached way to encourage the body to produce a relaxed feeling of warmth, heaviness, and emotional calm. The core of AT is standard exercises that focus on six physical manifestations of relaxation in the body:
HOW IT IS TAUGHT
AT can be taught in individual sessions, and it is frequently used in group treatment. Training is best done while sitting or lying in a comfortable position, as it allows the mind and body to switch off the sympathetic fight/flight/freeze stress response and restore the parasympathetic rest, recuperation, and recovery response. It is recommended that a person learn AT with a licensed professional. They can help explore positive relaxation responses experienced with AT, process any possible negative initial relaxation responses, and examine ways to enhance motivation for practice. It typically takes several training sessions to master AT, and without regular practice, it is not likely to have an effect. In
order for AT to be effective, the practice needs to induce a relaxation response on a regular basis. Success with AT requires motivation and commitment to practice regularly.
There is a large body of empirical data related to the psycho-physiological model of change in AT. A meta-analysis of 60 studies found significant positive effects of AT treatment when compared to the control for clinical outcomes related to a number of diagnoses, including tension headache, migraine, mild to moderate essential hypertension, coronary heart disease, bronchial asthma, somatoform pain disorder (unspecified type), and Raynaud's disease anxiety disorders, mild-to-moderate depression/dysthymia, and functional sleep disorders. A recent meta-analysis explored the efficacy of AT on the reduction of chronic pain. The results indicate that AT can be used as an effective relaxation technique and provides pain reduction for individuals suffering from chronic pain when compared to passive and active control groups. AT was found to be as effective in reducing pain as other relaxation interventions (e.g., progressive muscle relaxation or self-hypnosis) but noted that AT has certain advantages (i.e., no additional muscle tension of the painful muscle areas, no dependence on experts) and was well suited to meet the different preferences of individuals.
Research has also found AT to be effective in the treatment of anxiety, mild to moderate depression, and functional sleep disorders. Regular practice of AT has been found to reduce the frequency of migraine headaches and to be useful in the treatment of IBS by enhancing self-control.[4,5] A systematic review of six randomized controlled trials found that five of the six studies examined demonstrated statistically significant reduction in headache by AT only or biofeedback assisted AT for adults ages 19 and older. Another meta-analysis of 21 studies found autogenic training to be effective for adults’ stress management, decreasing anxiety and depression and increasing the high frequency of heart rate variability. It can also been used as an important adjunct in reducing symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease. Autogenic training appears to be a promising therapy to improve psychological well-being and quality of life in people living with chronic physical health problems. Krampen found that patients receiving both AT and cognitive therapy for treatment of moderate depression showed the best outcome at follow-up.
AT should not be considered as an alternative to cognitive-behavioral treatment or psychopharmacological treatment for the disorders it is used to treat. AT is contraindicated for people with psychotic disorders.
AUTOGENIC TRAINING EXERCISE
To help develop relaxation during the AT time, please make yourself comfortable so that you can relax and feel supported. Take precautions to ensure that you will not be disturbed during this training, so that you can concentrate on your experience. It is recommended that you keep your eyes closed and wear loose clothing. Repeat each phrase
listed below four times, as a general rule, saying it slowly and silently to yourself. Try and maintain passive concentration and a relaxed pace. Take about five seconds to make the self-statement. Then, pause for three seconds before beginning the next statement. If you have any problems with completing this activity, please talk with a health care professional.
Some individuals find that it is helpful to tape record the autogenic sequence, and others practice each set one at a time until they have memorized the entire sequence. You may also create your own autogenic phrases. Practice at least once a day. It can be helpful to practice at bedtime. You may find that by using some of the last few sets you can achieve a pleasant and calm autogenic state under any circumstances.
Use a breathing warm-up before every AT practice session. You can do this by starting with a few minutes of deep breathing. Breathe in deeply and try to lengthen the outbreath to be longer than the inbreath. Find and maintain a rhythmic breathing pattern that feels comfortable to you. Do this for several minutes before transitioning to the autogenic phrases.
If you say the phrase and don’t actually feel the results of what you are saying, take the time to repeat the phase. It may take some time before the effects begin to manifest.
Set 1: Heavy
“Autogenic Training” was written by Shilagh A. Mirgain, PhD and by Janice Singles, PsyD (2016, updated 2023).
This Whole Health tool was made possible through a collaborative effort between the
University of Wisconsin Integrative Health Program, VA Office of Patient Centered Care and
Cultural Transformation, and Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.