What Is EMDR & How Does It Help With Performance Anxiety?

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More people report that they'd rather get the flu than perform in front of an audience.  

If that seems odd, consider this: One of the most commonly-reported versions of social fear is performance anxiety.  

Here's a brief overview of performance anxiety, and a peek into how a therapy type known as EMDR can help alleviate its symptoms.

What is performance anxiety?

Often referred to as "stage fright," performance anxiety is an intense – even crippling – psychological and physiological stress many individuals experience before doing something for an audience.

Performance anxiety creates a lot of vulnerability. It can prevent you from doing what you enjoy and it can affect your career. It can even decrease your self-esteem and self-confidence.  Luckily, a therapy type called EMDR can help.

What is EMDR?

EMDR (which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a scientifically-proven psychotherapeutic technique that draws on your brain’s natural ability to heal from psychological wounds.  

EMDR helps your brain process traumatic memories

In EMDR sessions, your therapist helps you process those memories in order to make them less disturbing. As a result, EMDR can be a powerful tool for removing internal barriers to success.

EMDR allows you to review disturbing memories without re-triggering the trauma, giving you a new, clearer perspective on the past. The pain of the memories recedes to the background. You may remember the events, but they will no longer feel bothersome.

EMDR works by stimulating both halves of the brain

EMDR practitioners (like myself) use guided eye movements, sounds, and/or tactile tapping. These help your brain access particular distressing incidents related to your performance anxiety, and then reprocess them.

How EMDR can help you overcome performance anxiety

EMDR reduces many symptoms of performance anxiety

In order to fully overcome performance anxiety, you have to tackle the symptoms one by one! EMDR can help reduce many of said symptoms, including (but not limited to):

Because EMDR can reduce so many of these symptoms, it's popular among performing artists, athletes, and others with careers that may lead to performance anxiety.  

Negative mental states that have been holding you back are replaced with confidence

Perhaps most importantly, after you've had EMDR treatment, the toxic mental states that are holding you back are released. You'll start to experience more peaceful states of mind, greater confidence, and better self-efficacy.

When to seek EMDR over another therapy type for performance anxiety

There are no real “shoulds” when it comes to seeking out EMDR therapy, but there are some situations in which it may be especially helpful to give it a try:

  1. When you know your performance anxiety is tied to past disturbing experiences
  2. When traditional talk therapy has not gotten you results
  3. When you don’t want to take medication
  4. When you feel you have tried everything and nothing has worked

Often, people seek out EMDR after they have tried everything else, but it’s just as helpful if it’s the first therapy you try.

EMDR can be combined with traditional talk therapy to help with other major stressors

If your performance anxiety is complicated by other stresses in your life, you may want to do EMDR in conjunction with talk therapy. I often do this kind of combined therapy with my clients.

5 steps of EMDR treatment for performance anxiety

1. Determining which memory is your EMDR "target"

First, you and your practitioner will work together to determine which disturbing memory you are going to start with as your EMDR target.

2. Exploring the negative beliefs, feelings, and body sensations you associate with that memory

You’ll also determine which new, positive beliefs and sensations you are aiming to achieve.  

3. Developing strategies and mindfulness techniques

You can use these coping techniques to stay calm during tough moment of treatment.

4. Subsequent sessions involve alternating periods of brain stimulation with periods of rest

During the periods of rest, you report your experiences to your practitioner. These experiences might include memories, thoughts, feelings and images related to the target memory.

By reliving the past with brain stimulation, you rid memories of their power to trouble you.

5. Treatment continues by building positive thoughts

As treatment continues, you’ll keep working on building increasingly positive and hopeful thoughts, feelings, images, and anticipated events with your practitioner’s help.

How long treatment lasts varies from person to person, depending on the complexity of your situation. That said, you will know in a relatively short period of time if you have a positive response to the EMDR method.

What to look for in an EMDR therapist for performance anxiety

Prioritize someone you feel comfortable opening up to

As with other forms of therapy, EMDR treatment also requires a strong, trusting connection with your practitioner.

Your therapist should have designated EMDR training

EMDR requires skill on the part of the practitioner, and should only be done by a licensed mental health professional who has trained with one of the established EMDR institutes.

If you are ready for change, have made a good connection with your therapist, and resonate with the EMDR method, know that the results can be remarkable!