Do you need to reset or take a little mind vacation? Would you like to try a unique form of meditation that takes less than 15 minutes? Autogenic Training (AT) is a unique relaxation method where you use your mind/thoughts to help your body relax. AT desensitizes hyped-up nerves and calms an overactive or ruminating mind. This technique was first developed by a German psychiatrist named Johannes Schultz. Modern variations have been created and are used by many to reset or calm the sympathetic (think fight or flight) part of the autonomic nervous system allowing the parasympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system (rest and digest) to work it’s restorative magic.
Scientists are finding that stress is a major contributor to illness. Stress may impact cardiovascular disease, blood sugar dysregulation, poor sleep, inflammation, headaches, high blood pressure, chronic upset stomach, increased anxiety and more. New research is reporting that stress can even change our gene expression. This is a field of study called epigenetics where factors in the environment such as stress, lack of sleep, poor dietary intake and exposure to toxins can increase or “turn on” our genetic predispositions to disease. The opposite is also true, modulating stress, getting good quantity and quality of sleep, eating nutritious and non-inflammatory foods and limiting toxins are all behaviors that decrease the likelihood of disease-type genetic expressions.
Notice I said “modulating stress.” Getting rid of or avoiding all stress is not possible, nor desirable. Stress is an import part of life. Our bodies were made to experience stress. . . . . . and then take a break from stress. Stress can occur in seemingly negative ways such as illness, job loss, car crash, divorce, a teenager who didn’t come home on time or a missing pet. Examples of positive stress are moving to a new and better job, a wedding, the birth of a child, getting a new puppy, giving a presentation to a group of people, or starting college.
Getting rid of or avoiding all stress is not possible, nor desirable.
Stress encourages us to grow and improve. Our ability to react suddenly to a stressful event could save a life. Reacting to stress related to a job loss gives us the energy to get busy looking for a solution to that problem. The stress of giving a presentation or taking on a new challenge like college allows us to grow in confidence and expand our minds.
Here is where the problem lies when we are faced with chronic, low-level stress:
As Americans we tend to function on a day to day and hour to hour basis experiencing constant stress. Our body systems were designed to be ready, in a moment’s notice, to switch into fight or flight mode for some serious, life-threatening-kind of survival tactics. Imagine, long ago, in order for humans to survive we had to be ready to ward off predators. We had to survive terrifying encounters with beasts and other humans without the protection of a secure structure or advanced weapons. We could react and then . . . . . . . rest.
Does this common everyday scenario resonate with you? Stayed up late after having one too many drinks, overslept, skipped breakfast, forgot to pack lunch the night before, gas gauge was on empty, traffic moved slow, boss bumped up deadline on major project, worked through lunch eating a granola bar and small bag of chips, school called to report a sick child, dinner was fast food drive through, paid bills . . . . . . .
Also, some of us tend to ruminate on aspects of our lives that happened in the past or worry about uncertainties associated with the future. Ruminating and worrying rob us of being present, in the moment and getting the most out life. Ruminating and worrying contribute to chronic low-level stress.
Chronic low-level stress, without a break keeps us in sympathetic fight or flight mode; increases blood pressure and heart rate, pulls blood flow away from absorbing nutrients in the gut, tenses muscles, elevates stress hormones like cortisol and taxes our adrenal glands. These effects make us more susceptible to chronic disease.
What should I do?
Give yourself a break from chronic stress. Take a little mind vacation. Practice some form of meditation that helps you calm down and transfer your fight or flight system over to the rest and digest (parasympathetic) system. Scientists are suggesting that one to two meditation breaks during the day will help balance the autonomic system instead of keeping it heavier on the fight or flight side of the equation. Try for 10-20 minutes once or twice a day.
Meditation is purposeful. A nap does not provide the same benefit. When we meditate purposefully we desensitize the nervous system. We tap into a unique stage of consciousness that helps balance the nervous system. We have four stages of consciousness:
New evidence is suggesting that meditation during the day improves quality of sleep later that night. It has been found to provide positive benefits in those with IBS, anxiety, hypertension, cancer, Crohn’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease and more.
How can Autogenic Training help?
Autogenic training helps restores the balance between the activity of the sympathetic (flight or fight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) branches of the autonomic nervous system. This has important health benefits, as the parasympathetic activity promotes digestion and bowel movements, lowers the blood pressure, slows the heart rate, and promotes the functions of the immune system.
Here is a 13-minute audio recording of a modern version of Autogenic Training for you to try:
Is Autogenic Training for everyone?
Meditation is very individualized. Some people try Autogenic Training and like it, other’s find that it isn’t very helpful. The trick for you is to find a meditation practice that you enjoy and that works for you. Some people find a meditation practice that works and always use that one method. Some find benefit in varying up the method. Some people need to seek outside help such as attending a workshop or meditation class. If you find that you really struggle with any form of meditation seek the help of a therapist who can teach you guided meditation or perhaps cognitive behavior therapy.
Here are some examples of other types of meditation for you to try: read a favorite book, take a hot bath, spend time in nature, practice yoga, pray, play a musical instrument, sit quietly and pet your cat or dog or try a breathing technique. Many apps are available with free breathing guidance that you can download onto your phone; they vary in length from 3 minutes to 30 minutes.
A real-life story . . . .
One of my favorite phone apps is Pranayama Free. There is an option to upgrade to a paid version, but I find the free version is great! Last fall when I was working at the University of Kansas Hospital I saw a patient who was only 34 years old. He had been admitted into the hospital 18 times in 2015 for a disorder called chronic cyclic vomiting. His vomiting was so severe that his doctor had inserted a feeding tube into his abdominal wall for liquid feeding. He had struggled with severe vomiting since he was 8-years-old. The constant exposure to stomach acid left him with only a few teeth. His quality of life was very poor. His doctor’s did not know what to do (I read this in his chart). They planned to refer him to a psychiatrist for an evaluation. When I entered his room the lights were off and he was writhing in pain from a migraine headache. As a nutritionist and health coach I saw that he needed help managing stress. I helped him install Pranayama Free on his android phone and we practiced the breathing technique (a beautiful chime coincides with the breathing timer) together for five minutes in the darkness. As the timer ended my patient had tears streaming down his face. He said his headache was almost gone. He told me he could not remember feeling so peaceful ever in his life.
I share this story because meditation can be very powerful. I never saw that patient again. I hope he was able to get the mental health help that I believe he needed. I hope he was able to restore his health from years of chronic stress and malnutrition. I hope he was able to continue using the app to find comfort in his everyday life. I was grateful that I was blessed with being a part of his path searching for better health.
I wish you a balanced autonomic nervous system!
Links to other resources:
Pranayama Free Apple version