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Hypnosis and Autogenic Training for Stress Reduction

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

A final psychologically-oriented relaxation technique we want to discuss is known as Autogenic Training, which is a form of self-hypnosis. All forms of hypnosis involve the cultivation of what is known as a trance state, a condition of mild to moderate dissociation in which people become more suggestible than they normally are. While in the trance state, people's normal judgment capabilities become temporarily suspended or detached and they become open to receiving and executing suggestions from others that might normally be rejected out of hand, or seem silly or impossible. It is as though the body hears the suggestion and carries it out, without the mind being there to mediate or judge the transaction.

On the basis of Hollywood movie dramatizations and stage shows, many people have developed a sense that hypnosis is a dangerous thing which weakens the will, sets people up to be victimized, or which can cause people to do stupid or dangerous things without being able to protect themselves. The term dissociation has a similarly negative meaning for many people. Because so many serious mental illnesses involve dissociation, many people who know of the phenomena generally do not wish to experience it.

Despite these concerns, neither dissociation nor hypnosis is an inherently bad or dangerous thing. Mild dissociation is a very common aspect of human consciousness, occurring frequently, including when people "space out" or daydream. Hypnotic trances are simply suggestible states of mind, and as such, they can be used for both positive and negative ends. Notably, while in a hypnotic trance you can do a number of things that can help reduce your stress.

There are two ways you can experience a hypnotic state for purposes of stress reduction. One way is to work with a trained hypnotherapist, and the other is to learn how to hypnotize yourself. If you choose to work with a hypnotherapist, do your best to find one who is both licensed and also trained as a competent psychotherapist and mental health professional apart from his or her use of hypnotherapy. It is one thing to develop skill as a hypnotist, and entirely another to know how to use those skills to help clients with stress or other issues affecting mental health. The only way to ensure that both skill sets are present is to work with someone who is a licensed psychotherapist as well as a hypnotherapist.

It is very possible to induce a state of self-hypnosis and then to make helpful suggestions to yourself. Self-hypnosis will almost always induce a lighter trance state than hypnosis that is induced by a third party hypnotist, but that is not necessarily a bad thing either.

Autogenic Training

Autogenic Training was developed in the 1930's by German physician Dr. Johannes Shultz. Autogenic training allows you to attain a state of profound relaxation and peace. The process is completely passive and indirect. In other words, rather than thinking consciously about making a particular change occur, you induce specific body changes, such as warmth or heaviness, by concentrating on visual imagery, sounds, or parts of your body. The relatedness of the procedure to visualization, sensory imagery techniques, and meditation should be apparent.

Autogenic training is not complicated, but the lessons follow a specific progression and take a good deal of time and discipline to master. Success requires consistent, regular practice! There are six basic steps which are taught in series, one step per session. Sessions always start at step one and continue in sequence, adding the latest step at the end of practice. The goal of the activity is passivity and observation, rather than trying to force a particular sensation to occur. The exercise takes place while the trainee is sitting or lying comfortably.

The following script shows the progression of Autogenic Training steps:

1. Inducing the sensation of heaviness
1.1. Think of your right arm as being very heavy. (Begin with your left arm if you are left handed.) Repeat to yourself six times, "My right (left) arm is very heavy."
1.2. At the end of the sixth repetition, say to yourself once, "I am completely calm."
1.3. Repeat steps 1.1 and 1.2 five or six times. Try to disregard all thoughts except those involved in the training.
1.4. Repeat steps 1.1 through 1.3 for each arm and leg.

2. Inducing a sense of warmth
2.1. Do step 1 in its entirety.
2.2. Using the same format as in step one, repeat to yourself six times: "My right (left) arm is very warm." Then say, "I am completely calm" once.
2.3. Repeat the heaviness routine followed by "My right (left) arm is very warm." Do this six times, ending each repetition with "I am completely calm," Repeat this entire sequence several times.
2.4. Continue as above, repeating the heaviness and warmth routines for each arm and leg.

3. Heartbeat practice
3.1. After a complete repetition of the previous steps, begin heartbeat practice by thinking, "My heartbeat is calm and regular." Repeat this six times, followed by "I am completely calm" once.
3.2. Repeat the entire series, beginning with "My right/left arm/leg is very heavy" and ending with "I am completely calm." Do this several times.

4. Breathing practice
4.1. Following the repetition of all prior steps, begin breathing practice by repeating to yourself, "My breathing is calm and regular." Repeat this six times, followed by "I am completely calm" once.
4.2. Repeat the entire series beginning with, "My right/left arm is very heavy" several times.

5. Solar plexus (abdominal) practice
The solar plexus is a large network of neurons (cells in our brain and nervous system) that regulates the function of the abdominal organs. It lies midway between the breastbone and the navel and is part of the autonomic nervous system.
5.1. Following repetition of all prior steps, begin work on the solar plexus by repeating, "My solar plexus (abdomen) is warm" six times, followed by "I am completely calm" once.
5.2. Repeat the entire series, beginning with the heaviness routine, several times.

6. Head practice
6.1. Begin by thinking "I am very calm." Repeat all of the previous steps. Complete each step six times, beginning and ending with "I am very calm."
6.2. When you have repeated all the earlier steps, begin head practice by thinking, "My forehead is cool" six times, followed by "I am very calm" once.
6.3. Repeat the entire program, from the heaviness routine through head practice, several times.

More information about Autogenic Training can be found here.