The way I imagined getting hypnotized growing up was that some magician-looking guy would wave a pocket watch in my face, tell me that I’m getting very sleepy, and then I’d drift off into a trance. But for whatever reason, my biggest fear was that the hypnotist would make me cluck like a chicken, or turn into a comparably embarrassing animal. That alone has stressed me out for decades, so the thought of self-hypnosis being relaxing was more than a little ridiculous to me. And yet autogenic training, a calming form of self-hypnosis, promises to do precisely that — and I set out to test that claim.
Developed in the early 20th century by German psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz, the impetus for autogenic training was to give patients a more accessible alternative to intensive psychoanalysis for dealing with psychological stress. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that autogenic training spread to the U.S. when other mindfulness practices like meditation and breathwork were popularized. But instead of focusing on your thoughts like during meditation, autogenic training sort of works in reverse by tapping into physical sensations.
The way autogenic training works is by imagining a sense of warmth and heaviness throughout your body. Like other mindfulness strategies, using specific prompts about bodily sensations linked with relaxation can theoretically calm a person down by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering their heart and relaxing their muscles. The process involves six steps:
- Find a comfortable place to sit down (not the toilet), or lie down if you’re using autogenic training to wind down before bed or a power nap. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. You don’t have to do anything specific other than pay attention to it.
- Moving through your body, silently say the phrases, “my right arm is heavy, my left arm is heavy, both of my arms are heavy,” and so on for each body part.
- Scan your body again, similarly saying that each part is warm.
- As you repeat these phrases, tell yourself that your heartbeat is regular.
- At the end of the process, assure yourself that you are completely calm.
- While the rest of your body is warm and heavy, imagine feeling a cool sensation on your forehead.
“The idea is to use these physical sensations as a way to shift into a state of deep relaxation,” says New York City-based psychiatrist Ryan Sultan, M.D. Since many people are more comfortable focusing on their bodies than their minds, it can be a beneficial addition to any parent’s “wellness toolkit,” Sultan explains, especially if a more introspective practice like meditation has failed them in the past.
The evidence backs up autogenic training for stress relief. Studies show that it can improve the mental health of people suffering from chronic illnesses, as well as stroke survivors. Autogenic training has also been found to reduce anxiety among nursing students and increase performance during nursing simulations. Finally, some research suggests that autogenic training can even reduce headaches, which are almost a guaranteed side effect of having children. Plus, the strategy has been utilized by the military and professional athletes, so it could have the strength to tackle even the most stubborn of brains…in this case, my own.
One of the best parts about autogenic training is that there are a variety of free resources that break down the technique. So, without a pocket watch to dangle or anything to lose, I decided to try a three-week autogenic training regime to help with my anxiety and insomnia.
This is how the hot and heavy experience chilled me the hell out.
Autogenic Training Days
Sultan recommends practicing the relaxation technique for up to 15 minutes a day, but starting by working your way up to that number. “Begin with shorter sessions and gradually increase your practice time as you become more comfortable with the technique,” he says, beginning at closer to 8 to 10 minutes, or really however long you can handle.
To make sure trying autogenic training correctly, I followed along to a free YouTube video for my first few days of the practice (although it quickly got tedious). By the end of my first week attempting autogenic training, I was surprised to find it as relaxing as it was, particularly how imagining feeling warm and heavy calmed me down like a hot bath. Much like the first time I tried CBD, it worked a little too well, and I needed to take a few unscheduled power naps.
By week two, I pivoted to using autogenic training to wind down in the evening, which was particularly beneficial on nights when I worked out. When I do hot yoga or some other workout at night, it can be hard for me to come down and relax afterward. The process of autogenic training balanced this out nicely.
Like any other new skill, Sultan assured me that autogenic training might take time to master, but it’s important to be patient, he says. “Don't be discouraged if you don't see immediate results.”
Still, because the technique was slightly simpler to grasp than meditation, I got the hang of it quickly. By week three, I started incorporating autogenic training sessions on days when I had too much caffeine on accident (my bad) and increased anxiety as a result. To me, this practice was on par with deep breathing and brought me down from fight-or-flight mode long enough to drink some water and eat a snack when anxiety threatened to overwhelm me.
In my 21 days of dabbling in autogenic training, I found it to be easier and as effective as most basic guided meditations and the “military method” for sleep — a more complex method exclusively tailored towards sleep rather than relaxation in general. As for how it compares with my other wellness tools, autogenic training was about as effective as breathwork.
Unlike taking deep breaths, you can’t call on autogenic training on the fly when you’re dealing with your colleagues and family. It’s more labor-intensive and requires carving out 10 minutes for yourself, which can be easier said than done depending on the day. But if you can set aside that time, the benefits could be worth the investment.
That said, autogenic training is not a substitute for medical treatment when it comes to anxiety or insomnia, but a tool for self-regulating. “If you have any pre-existing mental or physical health conditions, it's always a good idea to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new type of relaxation or mindfulness practice,” Sultan says.
It’s also worth noting that not every mindfulness practice is effective for everyone — but that’s all the more reason to try all of the research-backed methods firsthand and see what works for you.
Whether you’re looking to cope with the stressors of parenthood a little better or sleep better at night, a little self-hypnosis might go a long way. And you don’t even have to cluck like a chicken.