Why wait for a GP's appointment when a simple relaxation technique can help to ease many stress-related ailments, from asthma to anxiety? Karen Hainsworth discovers autogenics

I am not being massaged, buffed or pampered in any way, but within a few hours of starting this therapy I am relishing a delicious warmth that seeps across my aching back and into my arms. Turn the lights out, and you'd see me glow.

That's certainly not what I'd expect from a technique with a name that could have sprung straight from an Audi advertisement. "Autogenics" lacks a certain sexiness, but I'm told it's very efficient. It was devised in the 1920s and 1930s by Dr Johannes Schultz, a neuropsychiatrist, and later developed by Dr Wolfgang Luthe, a professor of psychophysiology at McGill University, Canada. The latter - a complete sceptic - became autogenics' most ardent fan after witnessing the relaxing effect it had on a group of asthmatics in his care.

Asthma is just one complaint it seems to help. According to autogenics therapist Jane Bird, who trained with Dr Luthe, there is evidence to suggest it is useful for a range of conditions, including IBS, migraine, insomnia, chronic pain, panic attacks, hypertension and free-floating anxiety. Any symptoms that are made worse by stress seem to be improved by autogenics, or autogenic training (AT) as it is also known.

Research published this month in the American Heart Journal found that it is particularly useful for reducing anxiety in patients who have recently undergone coronary angioplasty. And a study in the latest European Journal of Oncology Nursing showed that AT resulted in significant improvements in immune function, reduced anxiety and improved sleep quality among women with breast cancer.

I visit Bird hoping merely to reduce stress levels, but as the course of nine lessons progresses I find a range of physical symptoms simply disappear. Under Jane's instructions, I begin the first session by suggesting to myself that my right arm feels heavy. I repeat this suggestion only three times and already I begin to feel that the tension is slipping away. Momentarily, it reminds me of hypnosis but then Bird asks me to snap myself out of this reverie and stretch. It's torture. I'm desperate to go deeper, relax more.

"Bringing yourself out of that sense of comfort is as important as drifting into it," she explains. "What you are doing is training the body to dip in and out of a deeply relaxed state, an altered consciousness, at will." That sounds good but feels almost impossible. My homework for the week is to practice this frustrating exercise, but I fail miserably and have to admit I spend much of the time almost nodding off in a luxurious kind of trance.

After four weeks of inducing a feeling of warmth and heaviness in my arms, legs, and crucially my neck and shoulders, I do feel more relaxed and in control. Oddly, my nagging back pain has disappeared and my neck feels like putty rather than rock.

Remarkably, for the first time in years I am able to attain the odd moment of mental stillness rather than a mind that races on into the night. I'm not surprised when Bird tells me that autogenics has been termed the Westerner's meditation.

"There are overlaps," she says. "But people who are not really suited to meditation do well on autogenics, firstly because it is very body orientated, and secondly because the simple structure of the autogenics exercises suits the Western brain."

However, few people seem to have heard of it, which is surprising considering it has some fairly heavyweight support. Roger Neighbour, a retired GP and president of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) is a patron of the British Autogenic Society and regularly uses the technique himself. "If I get symptoms that are clearly stress-related, like headaches or backaches or a mind that won't switch off, I find it excellent," he says.

As a GP, he would often perform a short AT exercise to clear his head between seeing patients and to relieve the pressure of work. "Sometimes the solution to workload is not for the workload to go away but for the sense of load to be relieved. I found that autogenics will convert a load into something tolerable." Having made a number of referrals to autogenics practitioners, he has seen remarkable improvements in patients with serious anxiety- and psychosomatic-related illnesses. And it is his personal belief that AT should be a natural part of the healthcare referral system for such conditions.

Unfortunately, he's one of only a handful of doctors who recognise the efficacy of this therapy, and its presence within the NHS is practically nonexistent outside of courses run at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. An exception to this, however, was a very successful study carried out at the Harrow East & Kingsbury Primary Care Group. Twenty of the 50 GPs who were introduced to the technique referred patients with anxiety problems to the study. Participants not only found a significant reduction in their panic attacks, but also an immense improvement in the quality of their sleep. Not surprisingly, both doctors and patients were enthusiastic about the effectiveness of this drug-free treatment.

"Patients don't like taking medication," says retired GP Dr Ann Bowden, the director of the research project carried out at Harrow. "This is particularly the case when it is an emotional problem. Patients feel a great sense of failure if they're put on pills to deal with their feelings."

Dr Bowden, who teaches autogenics at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, is keen to stress that one of its main benefits is the immense sense of empowerment gained by controlling one's own physical and emotional responses. "With autogenics, we are reintroducing the person to their own state of rest and relaxation in a very structured way. And it stops them being reactive to those stressors that are external or internal, perceived or real."

Autogenic training is not a panacea, but research continues to prove its usefulness, says Bird. And AT usually provides some unexpected benefits, too. "Though a client may come in suffering from headaches, they may leave with greater self-esteem and a different perspective about their condition. Given half a chance, the human organism will right itself. AT facilitates this."

AUTOGENICS: WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?

* Autogenic means "self-generating". Sometimes described as a Western meditation, autogenic training brings about a profound state of physical relaxation and inner calm without the use of drugs. Using simple instructions to relax and warm areas of the body, it seems to allow a natural healing process to kick in.

* It is learned in nine, one-hour sessions and remains a skill for life. During this time the body is trained to operate at a lower level of arousal. This can benefit the body's cardiovascular and digestive systems, as well as improve the immune response. Mastering the technique allows a person to drop into a deep state of relaxation in moments.

* Inducing such a deep sense of relaxation can release traumatic memories and emotional support may be necessary. Autogenics needs to be taught by a qualified therapist.

* The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital runs NHS-funded courses. If you live in London you can ask your GP for a referral.

Jane Bird: 01923 675501; www.autogenic-therapy.org.uk/bird.htm

The British Autogenic Society: 020-7383 5108; www.autogenic-therapy.org.uk (the website provides a list of local practitioners)

'Autogenic Therapy: Self-help for Mind and Body' by Jane Bird and Christine Pinch, is published by Newleaf and costs £12.99

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