Autogenic Training: A Potentially Visionary Relaxation Method for Polyphasic Lifestyle

Introduction

Autogenic training is a Complementary & Alternative Medicine (CAM) therapy. Mainly, it is a relaxation method in the form of autonomic self-regulation and meditation. It serves to relax the mind and stave off the “fight-or-flight responses” of the sympathetic nervous system1,2. There are various ways to use this relaxation technique to help improve sleep quality, dream recall frequency and mental state. One can do so by tapping into the stress system in the body and stimulating rest mode. Autogenic techniques include, but are not limited to:

  • Using visuals and imagery inside the mind
  • Focusing on muscle functions to reduce their activity
  • Slowing heart rate by breathing, and personal imagination1,3,4,.

Therapeutically, autogenic training has been very helpful to alleviate different psychiatric disorders. These include:

  • Depression1,4,5,6,7
  • Anxiety1,2,6
  • Overall emotional health1,2,9
  • General quality of life4,5.

Regarding sleep, autogenic training is known for improving sleep quality8 and dream recall frequency1,2,3.  Polyphasic sleepers who have trouble recalling dreams may be interested in trying it out. In addition, autogenic training is possible at home with simple exercises. All in all, these techniques promise a lot of benefits that can be useful for polyphasic lifestyles.  

A Potential Sleep Quality Aid in Polyphasic Sleeping

Polyphasic sleepers often aim for sleep quality when they attempt to adapt to a new schedule. In the meantime, autogenic relaxation have anecdotally shown the ability to improve sleep quality a lot more than their monophasic sleep or poorly scheduled random sleeps:

  • Shorter sleep onset latency (SOL)
  • Minimal or no intermittent wakes during sleep, also known as wake after sleep onset (WASO)
  • Negligible sleep inertia upon awakening.

Fortunately, research shows that these techniques are capable of delivering these sleep quality attributes. This is visible at least in the context of monophasic and biphasic sleeping.

Monophasic sleep

Reducing insomnia symptoms

As mentioned in the Yoga blog post, trouble falling asleep (long sleep onset duration) as a form of SOI and WASO are common problems during most polyphasic experiences. Even though reducing polyphasic schedules theoretically can deal with insomnia problems, there is no guarantee for every polyphasic sleeper. In addition, autogenic relaxation may not have as many contributing effects in reducing insomnia for polyphasic schedules that already have a low total sleep time. However, research on these techniques shows promising results:

  • In two studies, patients received an 8-week group AT training course. These people suffer from a wide range of mental disorders, physical problems and sleep-related problems (e.g, bipolar, anxiety, insomnia, chronic fatigue). However, they did report positive results: Faster sleep onset, shorter WASO duration and more restful awakenings from sleep1,2. The intervention method included 8 sessions that lasted for 2 hours each and only once a week.
  • In another study about cancer patients who reflected perpetually poor sleep quality, autogenic techniques reduced sleep disturbances, which include WASOs (e.g, bathroom use at night) and insomnia. AT techniques included thought-stopping (stopping the train of thought as in daydreaming form) and guided imagery5. Other results include the reduction of sleep onset duration at night through these relaxation techniques before bedtime.
  • A fourth study consisted of patients who had insomnia related to depression and anxiety disorder and lasted for 6 months. The patients showed reduced insomnia severity, more satisfaction with their sleep quality, less disruptions in daily performance tasks and more daytime energy. This implies that the levels of sleep deprivation and fatigue eventually subsided.

Biphasic sleep

  • The use of a relaxation technique via immersion in a FLOAT tank (Flotation-restricted environmental stimulation therapy) can help athletes recover muscle sores, especially those that take a nap during this therapy session9. Being able to nap (whether an NREM2 or REM nap) has some recuperative value. This evidence suggests that these autogenic methods can go well with napping to achieve greater benefits.
  • Another study demonstrated that napping behavior complemented with autogenic training’s relaxation-hypnosis can boost procedural and declarative memory performance10. The method induced a trance-like state to enable the non-nappers in the study to fall asleep in the short naps. Results are as follows:
  1. None of the participants obtained any SWS or REM sleep in the naps.
  2. Those who underwent hypnosis (without napping) had slower forgetting rate of learned materials, fewer human errors, faster tracing speed and better delayed recall of materials than those who stayed awake throughout the process.
  3. Those who only napped and did not receive hypnosis performed better in delayed recall, forgetting rate and tracing speed, but worse in human errors and immediate recall of materials.
  4. None of these participants were habitual or trained nappers; thus, sleep inertia upon awakening caused them to perform slightly worse than those who stayed awake. Regardless, the napping group did slightly better than the waking group in declarative performance. There was no improvement on procedural performance, likely because of the lack of REM sleep.
  5. No group underwent both hypnosis and napped; therefore, the combined effects remain inconclusive.

Regardless, it is possible that skilled nappers who apply the use of relaxation methods might perform better than the stay-awake group.

Takeaway

  • Through the aforementioned studies, autogenic training techniques appear to facilitate sleep by reducing sleep onset duration and WASO duration.
  • New polyphasic sleepers often struggle to fall asleep in their scheduled sleep blocks at the beginning for different reasons, including nervousness. Hence, those techniques can help relieve performance pressure in sleeping.
  • These home methods include regular exercises of regulating breathing rate and using imagery to prepare for sleep.
  • Autogenic techniques also seem to deliver a lot of powerful benefits to a wide variety of the human population (gender, different health conditions, mental states, varying occupations). 

Improvement of Mood & Mental State

Regardless of sleep patterns, the maintenance of a healthy balance of mood and emotional health is very important; this is especially crucial in polyphasic adaptations, where mood swings often occur with different degrees of seriousness. So far, there have been a handful of polyphasic sleepers with either chronic mental problems (e.g, bipolar, depression). Additionally, at least some people reportedly show irritability and unstable mood under the effect of sleep deprivation during adaptation. Hopefully, the use of autogenic techniques can relieve these emotional problems for polyphasic sleepers.

For monophasic sleepers who perpetually have sleep problems, mostly in the form of insomnia and poor emotional health, these training methods have shown astounding results:

  • Patients with mental problems (e.g, anxiety, bipolar) reported better self-control, deeper understanding of how relaxation works, more time for self-care, relief from emotional negativity or sleep deficit and quality of life to name a few1,2,5,8.
  • Autogenic training also helped nursing students deal with stress better by improving the stress response system7.

For biphasic athletes, napping enhances recovery as shown in the FLOAT tank study9. Napping alongside using autogenic training is more beneficial than using autogenic training alone. However, this area needs more research to fully determine whether a polyphasic system of multiple naps would be able to achieve the same effects.

Enhancing Dream Recall Frequency

Being able to experience vivid dreams and recall dreams from sleep is a potential gift of polyphasic sleeping. However, there is a common misconception that polyphasic sleeping always induces sleep deprivation through the occurrences of intensely vivid dreams. Mainstream science still considers approaching REM sleep quickly after sleep onset an effect of sleep deprivation rather than “traditional”  sleep.

Increased dream recall frequency is a positive trait by patients who underwent autogenic practices in the aforementioned studies. A study showed that after a 10-week beginner course of autogenic training, out of 112 participants:

  • 26 subjects recalled dreams several times a week
  • About 25% of the participants reported a sharp increase in dream recall ability
  • Four participants had less dream recall3.
  • The remaining subjects reported no change in dream recall frequency or overall a low frequency.

Daydreaming was the training method in the study. It specialized on visual memory and personal imagination.

  • Specifically, they instructed on repetition of phrases that describe bodily sensations such as “My right arm is heavy”. Then participants would imagine how “heavy” it feels.
  • This can be very useful for healthy polyphasic sleepers who seek to improve their dream recall frequency.
  • However, autogenic training cannot guarantee desired results for all polyphasic sleepers. There is no correlation between the frequency of engaging in autogenic training and dream recall frequency from the study. 

Recently, there have been some reports of losing dream recall ability upon completing the adaptation phase. Some polyphasic sleepers still return a naturally poor dream recall ability; as a result, taking up the visual memory methods is worth considering.

Potential Risks for Polyphasic Sleeping

Even though there is no direct evidence for polyphasic sleeping and daydreaming-like methods, it is possible for polyphasic sleepers to apply them. The home methods would work the best. However, there are certain risks in the process, the most concerning of which is oversleeping.

Oversleeping from relaxation

Because autogenic training utilizes exercises that are meditative in nature like yoga, entering a relaxing state of mind can induce sleep. This is especially dangerous during the adaptation period, where sleepers have to stay awake outside of their scheduled sleep times.

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Relaxing before nap time to ease falling asleep

Daydreaming is also a potential threat during adaptation because it can induce trance-like states.

  • In addition, sleep deprivation is a potential contributor to creating more daydreaming instances.
  • Daydreaming can sabotage sleep onset, quality, and length in the upcoming sleep block.
  • Seated or lying methods should be used very sparingly or not at all during adaptation. Sleepers should only rely on them 10-15 minutes before a core sleep to facilitate sleep.
  • There have been reports of polyphasic sleepers who fall asleep too early by relaxing in bed before bedtime. This unfortunately constitutes an oversleep.

Thus, daydreaming methods should be capitalized on after adaptation is completed, where sleepers no longer feel the effects of sleep deprivation and can reliably control their wakeful state. 

Conclusion

Autogenic practices are able to provide multiple benefits for the overall well-being of practitioners. They are also straightforward enough to try at home. Such benefits range from improved mental state and daytime productivity to better sleep quality and possibly dream recall frequency. 

Pursuing more dream recall is also an appealing benefit of autogenic techniques. The only caution is that autogenic techniques can lead to unwanted oversleeps during polyphasic adaptations. Thus, they should only be attempted after the adaptation phase to add more flavor to polyphasic experiences. More research on autogenic training and more advanced polyphasic schedules would be essential to fully determine the relaxation effects.

Main author: GeneralNguyen
Page last updated: 27 December 2020

  1. Robinson, N., Bowden, A., & Lorenc, A. (2010). Can improvements in sleep be used as an indicator of the wider benefits of Autogenic Training and CAM research in general? European Journal of Integrative Medicine, 2(2), 57–62. doi:10.1016/j.eujim.2010.03.001
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  5. Simeit, R., Deck, R., & Conta-Marx, B. (2004). Sleep management training for cancer patients with insomnia. Supportive Care in Cancer, 12(3), 176–183. doi:10.1007/s00520-004-0594-5
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  8. Pinheiro, M., Mendes, D., Pais, J., Carvalho, N., & Cabral, T. (2015). Sleep Quality – Impact of Relaxation Techniques and Autogenic Training in Patients Diagnosed with Insomnia. European Psychiatry, 30, 1781. doi:10.1016/s0924-9338(15)31373-0
  9. Driller, M. W., & Argus, C. K. (2016). Flotation restricted environmental stimulation therapy and napping on mood state and muscle soreness in elite athletes: A novel recovery strategy? Performance Enhancement & Health, 5(2), 60–65. doi:10.1016/j.peh.2016.08.002
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