Feeling perpetually on edge? Stressed out? Nervous? Tossing and turning at night with tomorrow’s to-do list going round and round in your head? According to the Mental Health Foundation, almost a quarter of women say they are constantly anxious about issues such as money, work or family issues. And many feel life is spinning out of control. Think this could be you? Check out our symptom checker below to see if your stress is taking over.
Seem familiar? Then now’s the time to take action, as stress can also be a factor in the development of more serious problems, such as high blood pressure and coronary heart disease. Plus it can make chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis and multiple sclerosis, worse.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. There are ways to step away from your stress, from yoga and t’ai chi to relaxation tapes, meditation and mindfulness. But another option, described by Professor Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School, as ‘highly effective’, is autogenic training.
A simple solution
Autogenic training (AT) was devised by a German psychiatrist and neurologist called Dr Johannes Schulz in the ’20s. You are taught to sit, or lie down, in a relaxed position, and to learn a series of simple phrases, which you repeat silently, usually three times over. That’s all. The key point about AT is that you don’t have to try to do anything – not even to make your mind go blank or chase away those intrusive thoughts. You become, as one of the introductory phrases describes it, ‘your own passive observer’. The process enables and encourages you to use your body’s own capacity for self-healing.
To understand the effect this can have, you need to know what happens to your body and mind when your stress response kicks in. Whether you’re facing an exam, a tax demand, a difficult interview or a fretful toddler who won’t stop crying, your body reacts just as it would have done if you were a cave dweller faced with a sabre-toothed tiger. It’s known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ effect. Your pupils dilate, your heartbeat increases, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol pour into your bloodstream, your muscle strength increases and your digestive system shuts down. Your blood sugar and blood pressure levels increase, your jaw clenches and the narrow vessels in your lungs dilate– all ready to cope with the emergency you are currently facing.
Sometimes, of course, this kind of stress level can be useful, positive and exactly what is needed – in competitive sport or at exam times, for example. Or if you really do need to get away from a sabre-toothed tiger! But if your ‘fight-or-flight’ switch remains permanently in the ‘on’ position, your physical and mental health can suffer.
Mind in balance
What AT does is help you switch off the stress response, and switch on its opposite: the ‘rest, relax and recuperate’ response, which reverses all the changes listed above and helps to bring your body and mind back into the correct balance.
‘AT is not a cure but it puts you in a better place to deal with your life,’ says Brighton-based counselling psychologist Stephen Ashby (stephenashby.co.uk). Stephen was struggling with two jobs and a lot of stress himself before taking an AT course, followed by a diploma, a degree and then an MA in psychology. ‘Essentially, individuals can be their own best doctor and psychiatrist. An AT course can help each individual to create a calm centre to help them cope.
‘The advantage AT has over other relaxation therapies is that you don’t need to listen to a CD, wear special clothes or be in a particular place. Once you learn the basics it’s with you forever – you can do the exercises halfway up Mount Everest if you want to! It’s there, within yourself, that’s what the word “autogenic” means.’
What to expect
So what’s involved if you decide to go on an AT course? Normally, you will be offered a course of eight weekly sessions, each lasting about one hour. Some therapists offer one-to-one sessions but most are held in small groups of around half-a-dozen people.
There are benefits to studying autogenic training in a group, Stephen says. ‘It’s not “group therapy” – you don’t have to disclose anything to the other people if you don’t want to – but over the length of the course people do talk and it can be lovely to watch what happens in the room. No one ever seems to go back to their base level of stress. One client told me she wasn’t sure it was working for her but then said that her children liked it because she wasn’t shouting at them as much!’
At the first session you are taught basic postures, which allow you to relax, either sitting in an ordinary chair, in an armchair or lying on the floor or a couch with your head supported by a pillow. The room you’re in will be warm and comfortable with subdued lighting. You may start with a ‘body scan’, starting at your feet and moving upwards as far as your forehead and your scalp, noting which muscles are tense and which are relaxed, all this without judgement or criticism or any effort on your part.
Then, as the weeks pass, you are taught the standard exercises – focusing on warmth and heaviness in every part of your body in turn. Week by week, you develop more awareness of your heartbeat, your breathing, the warmth in your abdomen and the coolness of your forehead. You’re expected to do some ‘homework’ by repeating the exercises in your own time. It can be helpful to keep a diary of your regular practice and how you feel about it, too. You are also taught what are known as ‘intentional off-loading exercises’, which can be done, in private, to help you when you are experiencing emotions such as fear, grief or anger.
‘It doesn’t even matter if you sometimes find you are repeating the exercises mechanically, without really feeling them,’ says Stephen. ‘Your body does not forget what you have learned and you can come back to it at any time. AT teaches you to live in the present moment, which we are not good at in the 21st century. It’s the past and the future that are stressing us out! When you are truly living in the present, you will find your body and mind re-balance themselves.’