Medicine man: autogenic training

Practically all of us suffer from stress, particularly of the work-related variety; 91% of the British workforce feels a degree of unhappiness at work, and about 40m working days are lost each year in the UK due to stress. Faced with this epidemic,employers are beginning to realise that stress can damage the health of their workforce, and therefore their profits. Many are turning towards complementary medicine. Massage, reflexology, music therapy, meditation and hypnotherapy, among others, seem to offer a solution.

One approach, however, has so far been neglected: autogenic training (AT). In Britain few have heard of this technique, yet it is highly effective and offers important advantages over other options. AT entails a range of easy-to-learn mental exercises. In a way, it is a method of hypnotising yourself and is also known as "auto-hypnotic therapy". It can be taught in small group sessions and, once you master the technique, it can be practised at home without supervision.

The term autogenic training was coined almost 100 years ago by its German inventor, Johannes Schulz, who found that simple auto-suggestive messages can influence our bodily perceptions - the way we feel our bodies - and generate profound relaxation. One of the initial lessons, for instance, is to imagine one's hands and feet becoming heavy and warm. Through regular repetition of such exercises, one learns to dip into a state of relaxation and re-emerge from it feeling energised and stress-free. The idea is to put patients in control - they can decide when their stress levels are too high and when they want to lower them. The procedure takes only about 20 minutes and ideally should be practised on a daily basis.

The technique has been researched in some detail. My team summarised all the clinical studies testing whether AT works as a stress-reducing therapy, and all the evidence points to its effectiveness. In the past few months, three new clinical trials have emerged. A British research group showed that AT is a "powerful self-help therapy" when used by cancer patients to reduce stress. German investigators found that AT significantly improves sleep, which, in turn, helps cancer sufferers cope better in the daytime. My team published a study demonstrating that AT reduces anxiety in those who had recently undergone coronary angioplasty. Overall, the scientific evidence demonstrates AT to be a useful stress-buster.

AT is not only very effective; unlike some complementary treatments, it is also inexpensive. After about 10 supervised sessions, one is usually able to practise AT alone. Second, AT actively involves people, fitting well into the current mantra of maximising patients' responsibility for their health. Third, AT is virtually without risks. It is possible that people suffering from severe mental disorders could deteriorate with AT and therefore should not practise it without consulting a healthcare professional, but apart from this there is no potential for harm at all.

Complementary medicine offers numerous treatments that produce a powerful relaxation response. Some scientists may smile at such benefits, but I think it could enhance the quality of life of many individuals. And based on the evidence available to date, there are few treatments better suited than AT to help us out of the current stress epidemic.

· Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula medical school at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth.

British Autogenic Society email:
Tel/fax 020-7383 5108.

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