What is Mental Rehearsal?
Mental rehearsal is a technique used by elite athletes and other top performers worldwide with huge success. It involves running through an event or scenario in your mind in advance of the real event, over and over. Since the mind doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined, it can be a highly effective method of training.
In one study, a group of bodybuilders were asked to imagine doing a number of bicep curls each day. Another group actually did them for real. The group that imagined doing them saw almost as much muscle gain as the group that actually did them.
It sounds easy, but the trick is to really feel the experience, with all your senses and emotions. So, in this example, they would feel the muscle contracting, feel the sweat as they worked harder and harder, hear the sounds of the gym, see their surroundings – making it a fully immersive experience like this adds to realism and makes it more effective.
Mental Rehearsal for Anxiety
I use an advanced form of this technique in my program and it’s extremely powerful. So how do we apply it to anxiety?
You’ve probably heard of exposure or immersion therapy, where people are exposed to things that scare them. With anxiety, this takes the form of facing your fears, e.g. if you are afraid of driving then you force yourself into a car for a short journey and increase over time to longer journeys.
But what if you physically cannot get into the car? Mental rehearsal is a great way of bypassing all the pain and torment of exposure or immersion.
Start by writing out a scenario (on paper is best, the art of writing reinforces it mentally), including everything you see, hear, smell, taste, touch and feel. Involve all your senses, and make sure it includes a specific challenge that you need to tackle, like driving. Once you’re happy with it, make yourself comfortable, close your eyes and start running through the scenario in your mind’s eye. At first you’ll get distracted, it takes practice so just keep at it. Take a break if you need to, maybe rewrite it or add bits if you want to.
Repetition is the Key to Success
Once you’ve practised it a few times and memorised it, you need to do this last thing at night before going to sleep and first thing in the morning. These are the two times when the brain is most susceptible to rewiring. If you feel anxiety creeping in during the rehearsal that’s ok, just imagine yourself pressing on regardless and imagine the anxiety melting away. You need to spend 20-30 minutes doing this each session, so that’s 40-60 minutes in total each day. It actually goes pretty quickly once you get used to it.
How Does Mental Rehearsal Work?
This works by creating new neural pathways which, over time, become strong enough that they replace the anxious pathways that currently relate to this issue for you. If you do this properly and involve all of your senses in a realistic and immersive experience, you can see results in as little as just a few days, but it can take up to thirty days – this is the amount of time scientists have established it generally takes the brain to learn something new.
You can test yourself occasionally by thinking about the challenge and seeing how you feel about it, what the level of anxiety is compared to what it was. When you’re happy that it’s dropped enough, you can go out and do it for real.