Autogenic Training: A Potentially Visionary Relaxation Method for Polyphasic Lifestyle

Introduction

Autogenic training is defined as a Complementary & Alternative Medicine (CAM) therapy and relaxation method in the form of autonomic self-regulation and meditation that is aimed to relax the mind and stave off the “fight-or-flight responses” of the sympathetic nervous system1,2. There are various ways autogenic training can be used as a technique to help improve sleep quality, dream recall frequency and mental state 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, breathing, and personal imagination as instructed1,3,4,.

Therapeutically, autogenic training has been very helpful to alleviate different psychiatric disorders such as depression1,4,5,6,7, anxiety1,2,6, and improving overall emotional health1,2,9 and overall quality of life4,5. Regarding sleep, autogenic training is known for improving sleep quality8 and dream recall frequency1,2,3, which is often sought after by polyphasic sleepers who have trouble recalling dreams. Autogenic training can also be carried out 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

When talking about sleep quality, polyphasic sleepers often aim for the following characteristics. They have been anecdotally shown to improve their sleep a lot more than their monophasic sleep or poorly scheduled random sleeps: short sleep onset latency (SOL), minimal or no intermittent wakes during sleep, also known as wake after sleep onset (WASO), and negligible sleep inertia upon awakening. Fortunately, research shows that these techniques are capable of delivering these sleep quality attributes, at least in the context of monophasic and biphasic sleeping.

What research says:

A. Monophasic Sleep:

Reducing insomnia symptoms (including sleep onset insomnia (SOI) and WASO):
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 that these problems will just go away. It is also worth noting that autogenic methods may not have as many contributing effects in reducing insomnia for polyphasic schedules that already have a low total sleep time in nature, similar to yoga in this aspect. However, research on these techniques shows promising results:

  • In two studies, an 8-week group AT training course was given to patients with a wide range of mental disorders, physical problems and sleep-related problems (e.g, bipolar, anxiety, insomnia, chronic fatigue) with 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 were held for only once a week.
  • In another study about cancer patients who reflected poor sleep quality over a long period of time, autogenic techniques reduced sleep disturbances, which include WASOs (e.g, bathroom use at night) and insomnia. AT techniques in this study were the uses of thought stop (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, implying that the levels of sleep deprivation and fatigue eventually subsided.

B. Biphasic Sleep:

  • One study stated that 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 it is an NREM2 or REM nap) has some recuperative value. This evidence suggests that these autogenic methods can be used in conjunction 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 showed that none of the participants obtained any SWS or REM sleep in the naps, but those who underwent hypnosis (without napping) had slower forgetting rate of learned materials, fewer human errors, faster tracing speed and had better delayed recall of materials than those who stayed awake throughout the process. 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. The reason is that 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. No improvement on procedural performance was observed, likely because of the lack of REM sleep’s presence in the naps. There was no group that underwent both hypnosis and napped, so the combined effects could not be concluded. It is possible that skilled nappers who apply the use of relaxation methods might be bound to perform better than the group that would stay awake.

Takeaway:
Through the aforementioned studies, autogenic training techniques appear to be a strong tool to help facilitate sleep through their ability to reduce 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 varying degrees of nervousness, so those techniques can help relieve performance pressure of sleeping, also known as the pressures from having to sleep that delay sleep time. These methods that can be carried out at home include regular exercises of regulating breathing rate and using imagery (focus on some specific kind of image to stop daydreaming) to prepare for sleep onset. 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) or at least reportedly show irritability and unstable mood under the effect of sleep deprivation during the adaptation period. Hopefully the use of autogenic techniques can relieve these emotional problems for polyphasic sleepers, based on the limited amount of research for polyphasic sleeping.

For monophasic sleepers who perpetually have sleep problems, mostly in the form of insomnia which is associated with poor emotional well-being and ill 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.
  • Another study showed that it helped deal with stress better by improving the stress response system in a sample of nursing students7.

For biphasic sleepers in the case of elite athletes, napping enhances recovery as shown in the FLOAT tank study as a form of autogenic practice9. It was also concluded that napping alongside using autogenic training is more beneficial than using autogenic training alone. This area needs more research to fully determine whether a polyphasic system of multiple naps would be able to achieve the same effects, even though adapted polyphasic sleepers supposedly do not suffer from cognitive deficits or physical disrepair except under the conditions of long-term practices of extreme polyphasic schedules (normal, average humans without any mutated sleep genes). 

Enhancing Dream Recall Frequency

Being able to experience vivid dreams and recall dreams from sleep is a potential gift of polyphasic sleeping. Despite the misconception that polyphasic sleeping always induces sleep deprivation through the occurrences of intensely vivid dreams from sleep blocks full of REM (mainstream science still considers approaching REM sleep quickly after sleep onset an effect of sleep deprivation rather than “traditional”  sleep where sleepers would go through cycles in the order of NREM1, NREM2, SWS and finally REM), increased dream recall frequency is remarked as 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, and about 25% of the participants reported a sharp increase in dream recall ability — but for four participants dream recall decreased3. The remaining subjects reported no change in dream recall frequency or overall a low frequency (e.g, once a week), which is low in comparison with the usual polyphasic sleeping experience.

The training method used in this study was daydreaming, visual memory and personal imagination. Specifically, they instructed on repetition of phrases that describe bodily sensations such as “My right arm is heavy” and then imagining how “heavy” it feels. This can be very useful for polyphasic sleepers with an inherently healthy mental state who seek to improve their dream recall frequency, although autogenic training cannot guarantee desired results for all polyphasic sleepers and 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 as well as a naturally poor dream recall ability in some polyphasic sleepers; 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 since they are easy to do at home. However, there are certain risks involved in the process, the most concerning of which is oversleeping.

Risk of oversleeping:
Because autogenic training utilizes exercises that are meditative in nature like yoga, entering a relaxing state of mind can induce sleep during the adaptation period, where sleepers have to stay awake outside of their scheduled sleep times. Daydreaming is a potential threat during adaptation because it can induce trance-like states and sleep deprivation is a potential contributor to creating more daydreaming instances. Daydreaming can sabotage sleep onset, quality, and length in the upcoming sleep block.  Because of these reasons, seated or lying methods should be used very sparingly or not at all during adaptation (e.g, 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 their scheduled sleep time, which is 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 have been shown to provide multiple benefits for overall well-being of practitioners while being simple enough to try at home. Such benefits range from improved mental state and daytime productivity to better sleep quality and a solid niche in dream recall frequency. However, more research on autogenic training and polyphasic schedules with more than 2 sleep blocks each day is needed to fully determine how much effect these practices can have on sleepers. Pursuing more dream recall is an appealing benefit of autogenic techniques. The only caution is that autogenic techniques can lead to unwanted oversleeps during polyphasic adaptations, so they should only be attempted after the adaptation phase to add more flavor to polyphasic experiences. Future research is needed for long term effects of autogenic training on polyphasic sleepers, as well as what makes it work or not in certain polyphasic individuals.

Main author: GeneralNguyen
Page last updated: 17 June 2020 

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