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Mind Over Body: Autogenic Training for Relaxation

An important approach to bodily relaxation for reducing stress is called autogenic training, or AT for short. The word autogenic means self-generation or self-regulation. This method attempts to regulate your autonomic nervous functions and more specifically your parasympathetic nervous system (your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing, among others) rather than relaxing your muscles. With autogenic training, you use your mind to regulate your body’s internal stress levels.

AT relies on the power of suggestion to induce physiological changes. These suggestions are mental images that your subconscious picks up and transmits to your body. Just thinking about certain changes in your body produces those kinds of changes. As a result, you experience deep feelings of relaxation.

AT may sound mysterious, but it isn’t. After you master this technique, AT is a highly effective way of putting yourself in a more relaxed state. The method described here is a more abbreviated form than the one originally devised. However, it’s better suited to a busy lifestyle. Here’s what you do:

  1. Get comfy.

    Find a suitably quiet, not-too-hot, and not-too-cold place. You can sit or lie down, but make sure your body is well supported and as comfortable as possible. Try to breathe slowly and smoothly.

  2. Concentrate passively.

    For this approach to be effective, you need to adopt a receptive, casual attitude of passive concentration. You want to be alert, not falling asleep but not asking your mind to work too hard. You can’t force yourself to relax. Just let it happen.

    Be aware of your body and your mind, but don’t actively analyze everything or worry about how you’re doing. Should a distracting thought come your way, notice it, and then let it go. If the relaxation doesn’t come at first, don’t worry. It comes with more practice.

  3. Allow various body parts to begin feeling warm and heavy.

    Although autogenic training utilizes many suggestions and images, the two most effective images are warmth and heaviness. Start by focusing on your right arm. Now slowly and softly say to yourself:

    I am calm … I am at peace My right arm is warm and heavy My right arm is warm and heavy My right arm is warm and heavy I can feel the warmth and heaviness flowing into my right arm

    I can feel my right arm becoming warmer and heavier I can feel my right arm becoming warmer and heavier I can feel my right arm becoming warmer and heavier I am at peace I am calm I am at peace I am calm.

    Take the time to become aware of the feelings in your arm and hand. Notice that your arm is becoming warmer and heavier. Don’t rush this process. Enjoy the changes your body is now beginning to experience.

  4. After you complete the phrases, remain silent and calm for about 30 seconds, letting the relaxation deepen; then focus on your left arm.

    Repeat the same phrases again, this time substituting left arm for right arm. (Hopefully by now you’ve memorized these phrases and can close your eyes and not worry about a script.)

  5. Move to other parts of your body.

    Focus on other areas, repeating the same phrases but substituting other parts of your body. Here is the complete sequence: right arm, left arm, both arms, right leg, left leg, both legs, neck and shoulders, chest and abdomen, and finally your entire body.

    Completing the entire sequence shouldn’t take you more than a half hour or so. If you can fit in two or three autogenic sessions a day, all the better. You may need some time to master this technique, but the results are well worth the effort.

With autogenic training, you may find that using the “warm and heavy” suggestions and images isn’t effective for you. You may need a different image to release the tension in your body. Here are alternate suggestive images that can induce feelings of warmth and heaviness.

  • Heat me up: Imagine that the body part in question (arm, leg, and so on) is wrapped in a heating pad. Slowly but surely the heat permeates your body, relaxing your muscles more and more.

  • Get in hot water: Imagine that you’re immersing your arm or leg in soothing warm water.

  • Sunny side up: Mentally direct a sun lamp to a particular part of your anatomy.

  • Heavy metal: Visualize weights attached to your arm, leg, and so on.

  • Get the lead in: Imagine that your limb is filled with lead.

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