Not Just for Trauma: EMDR and Performance Enhancement

Runner athlete legsWhen people think of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, they generally think about a treatment for trauma, which is partially accurate. Treating trauma is what EMDR therapy was developed for and continues to do. But since its development and introduction over 25 years ago, it has become more than an intervention and is now a comprehensive psychotherapy, one that is exceptionally effective in addressing multiple issues and challenges.

A common misconception is that a person has to be struggling with mental health or major life challenges to benefit from EMDR. On the contrary, one of the most interesting and innovative uses of EMDR has been in performance enhancement in addition to its ability to decrease fear, stress, or anxiety related to performance.

How EMDR Works

In short, EMDR therapy accesses and links the multiple facets of memory (image, cognition, emotion, and sensation) and uses bilateral stimulation/dual-attention stimulus (eye movements or tactile or auditory stimulation) in order to decrease disturbance associated with specific incidents in a person’s life. It taps into the brain’s natural ability to heal and helps it file away memory appropriately so that when the memory is recalled, there is no disturbance associated with the memory.

Other Ways EMDR Can Help

EMDR has several wonderful applications. In addition to decreasing disturbance associated with trauma, it is effective in decreasing anxiety and targeting irrational or negative thinking, both of which may get in the way of performance. In addition, it can help a person to gain confidence in his or her ability to perform a task or reach a goal. EMDR works to achieve this by installing positive beliefs, and by having a person imagine doing the thing he or she is nervous to do or wants to improve in while doing bilateral stimulation. This has the effect of simultaneously decreasing the fear, anxiety, or stress associated with the task and boosting confidence.

It seems that EMDR helps the brain to think in a healthier, more adaptive way by removing blocks (such as negative self-beliefs) and helping the person to tap into his or her strengths.

An Example of EMDR in Practice

Sometimes EMDR is hard to conceptualize without a specific example. Here is a hypothetical one.

Alice wants to implement healthy habits into her life, so she has set a goal of exercising three times per week. However, she is self-conscious when she thinks of going to the gym. She worries about other gym members and trainers judging her.

She visits an EMDR therapist to help her reduce her anxiety and to boost her confidence in going to the gym. The therapist completes a thorough history and teaches her stabilization and calming skills to utilize between sessions and (if needed) during the desensitization phase. Once fully prepared for the next phase of EMDR therapy, Alice and her therapist assess and desensitize any past experiences that feel related to the current experience.

Once there is no longer any disturbance associated with past experiences, they then assess and target the current situations that are triggering for Alice. Specifically, Alice targets the image of the gym, the belief “I am not safe,” emotions (fear and insecurity), and body sensations associated with this target. They use bilateral stimulation and work through the target until no disturbance remains, Alice is able to fully believe the thought “I can keep myself safe,” and she no longer has any negative body sensations associated with the target.

Alice and her therapist then move to the next phase of EMDR therapy, during which future situations are targeted. During this phase, Alice plays a movie in her head, imagining herself packing her gym bag, getting in her car, driving to the gym, going into the gym, completing her workout successfully, and leaving the gym feeling a sense of accomplishment. Alice finds that when thinking about this scenario, she has some anxiety and another negative belief: “I am going to fail.”

Alice plays the movie through several times, all while the therapist provides bilateral stimulation. If Alice finds she gets stuck, she lets the therapist know and the therapist helps her to work through the sticking points. She finds that each time she plays the movie in her mind, she is less anxious and more confident in her ability to go through the actions she is imagining. She eventually finds that she no longer believes she will fail and, while playing the movie the last few times, instead holds the belief “I am strong and capable.”

The next time Alice goes through the actions of preparing for and going to the gym, she has far less anxiety and much more confidence.

Of course, every case and person is different, but this is a simple example of how EMDR may be helpful in not only addressing past and present issues related to performance, but also in enhancing future performance and decreasing anxiety related to potentially triggering situations. The number of sessions will vary from person to person, but it has been my experience as a therapist that EMDR is both efficient and effective. Contact a therapist trained in EMDR if you think it might be beneficial for you.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Cynthia

    February 6th, 2015 at 11:36 AM

    Truly, this is just amazing to me that there could be this much success with EMDR and yet is something that is relatively unknown for most of us

  • pamela

    February 6th, 2015 at 1:05 PM

    You know that there will be a ton of athletes dying to try this now that the word on it is out

  • therapydoc

    February 7th, 2015 at 6:20 PM

    It actually does work, just as Anasthasia suggests. I use it whenever a patient feels stuck. It amazes me each time. I’m going to link to this when I post a blog of “other people’s stuff” coming soon. Thanks!

  • whitney p.

    February 8th, 2015 at 4:20 AM

    I had some of the same experiences as Alice when I started working out too. I always thought and felt like people would laugh at me for being overweight and even trying to go out and exercise, even though logically that was the only way that I was going to get some of the weight off. It was hard but I have tried to power through all of that because I know that focusing on the negativity of others will not allow me to get to the point that I need to to be happy.

  • Glenn

    February 9th, 2015 at 8:55 AM

    I would be interested in knowing if patients tend to have long lasting results with this type of treatment

  • Trinity

    February 10th, 2015 at 10:48 AM

    I guess it could be a little too simplistic to think of this as retraining your brain to think differently about certain memories that you may have, but I think that this is kind of it at the essence. I know that there has to be a whole lot of work and effort on the part of both the therapist and the patient to make this happen, but it sounds awesome to be able to remember something that once would cause you a great deal of pain and to be able to view it in a different way so that it does not feel that hurtful anymore.

  • Anne S.

    July 13th, 2015 at 9:16 AM

    I only recently heard of EMDR therapy, as it looks like my daughter is going to start visiting a therapist for this kind of treatment. Your example of Alice is very encouraging. I’d love it if my daughter had increased confidence and less anxiety in her life. Thanks for the informative read. I feel I’ll be able to better understand what’s happening in her life now.

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