A Strategy for Stress: Autogenic Training
Stress causes the skin temperature in your hands and feet to drop, but there’s a mind-body strategy you can learn to help you “chill out” by raising the temperature of your extremities.
I’ve noticed that when I’m really stressed, my hands and feet get cold. Why is this? Is there something I can do about it?
When you experience even mild stress, warm blood usually moves from your extremities to your core. This is a powerful survival mechanism that helps you mobilize (by getting blood to the muscles that need it) or if, for example, a limb is lost, it reduces the chance of bleeding to death. But any kind of stress (not just the kind associated with survival) can trigger this mechanism. Experts suggest that stress can cool your hands and feet anywhere from a few to some degrees lower than when you are experiencing positive feelings.
“Autogenic training” is a two-part strategy to combat stress in which you first become keenly aware (without judging) of how warm or cool your hands are and then allow warmth to occur in your hands and feet by imagining the sensations of it happening. NCCAM (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) describes autogenic training as when “you focus on the physical sensation of your own breathing or heartbeat and picture your body as warm, heavy, and/or relaxed.”
It takes practice to develop this skill, but it can help to listen to a live or recorded script with relaxing suggestions that include feelings of warmth and heaviness in your hands and feet. In the process, you essentially get better at asking your body to turn off its stress response by opening up blood vessels (reducing blood pressure) and letting blood flow more easily.
There is promising support for using the technique to help relieve a slew of conditions, including post-traumatic stress symptoms, irritable bowel syndrome, coronary heart disease, and even for enhancement of lung capacity. Studies have found that autogenic training can help with some stress and circulatory-related issues such as hypertension, chronic headaches, mental stress associated with heart disease, pain disorders, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. And there is some evidence that, when combined with mental imagery, it can also be a useful tool for enhancing athletic skills.
The word “autogenic” actually means that you can learn to do this on your own. HPRC has created an autogenic training mp3 for you to use that takes you through this skill (the full copy of the transcript is available as a PDF to download). Try using this recording once a day and track your progress by noticing how your body responds. If you want to systematically monitor your training progress, you can measure change in skin temperature from before and after each session. You can buy a relatively accurate stress thermometer online for about $20. Ideally, over time, you could consistently raise your hand (not body) temperature, depending on your age and circulation.