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Anxiety

Performance Anxiety Have You Down? EMDR Can Help

Research shows that EMDR can help increase levels of performance.

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EMDR and Performance Anxiety: A potential new method for enhancing performance in work and school
Source: Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash

In clinical performance psychology, a number of mental factors are understood to negatively impact performance, and performance anxiety is an issue that frequently comes into play. While many of us might feel jittery before a speech or a presentation, significant performance anxiety can get in the way of what we are trying to accomplish.

Fortunately, there are already several techniques that a clinician might use to approach this issue with a client; some examples include imagery, self-talk, meditation, and exposure therapy, to name a few. However, as the understanding of psychology and its effects on performance has grown, EMDR has been recognized as a potentially noteworthy tool.

What Is Performance Anxiety?

Anxiety, in a more general sense, can be defined as excessive fear or worry about an event or activity that is out of proportion with the event itself. While an individual’s experiences with anxiety can be very broad, many people experience anxiety under particular circumstances. Performance anxiety is, therefore, a situation-specific kind of anxiety. It involves intense worry or fear about an individual’s upcoming performance, whether this involves a formal presentation, an important athletic match, or an appearance on a musical stage. It is often associated with social anxiety disorder, a disorder that is characterized by the significant fear of judgment from others, but performance anxiety on its own can also arise as a very specific challenge for many people.

Presentation anxiety is unique to the individual and can stem from the pressure to succeed, a lack of confidence, or even past mistakes. The resulting fear of failure or lack of ability often leads to a combination of physical symptoms (e.g., nausea, trembling, increased heart rate) and cognitive symptoms (e.g., negative self-talk, catastrophizing), and these symptoms have the potential to be debilitating on a person’s ability to accomplish the task at hand, if not properly addressed.

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The use of EMDR by a trained professional has been shown to help with performance anxiety.
Source: Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

The Role of EMDR in Performance Anxiety

In the same way that EMDR addresses traumatic memories, a clinician uses EMDR to allow clients to sit with, process, and desensitize anxiety-inducing stimuli around performance. The client may be asked to visualize an anxiety-inducing situation that occurred in the past and process through the negative thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations while engaging in physical bilateral eye movement.

EMDR is a technique that moves through eight phases and is based on the AIP model approach (Adaptive Information Processing): 1) the past events that might have induced feelings of anxiety for a client, 2) the current physical and emotional experiences, and 3) future possibilities for that client. By working through each of these phases, clients are able to work through their experiences and the associated symptoms from the roots up. In the context of performance anxiety, the client is then able to re-process anxiety-inducing scenarios, lower the emotional and physical impact of those events, and learn new coping strategies to manage those situations in the future.

Although clinicians have only recently begun utilizing EMDR as a treatment in performance anxiety, research has already yielded evidence to the effectiveness of EMDR in reducing symptoms and enhancing an individual’s performance. One study, in particular, noted a significant reduction in physical and cognitive symptoms when participants with severe presentation anxiety went through EMDR treatment (Barker & Barker, 2018).

While research around EMDR and performance anxiety is still in its early stages, the evidence uncovered thus far has opened new doors into the realm of performance psychology, and how individuals can improve their performance in the classroom or in the workforce. Insight into why problems with performance occur and how they can be best approached will continue to provide tools for clinicians, and for those in their care, to pursue wellness in their performance and their life as a whole. From this, the use of EMDR as a clinical tool has the potential to be applied in various unique contexts.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

Barker, R. T., & Barker, S. B. (2007). The use of EMDR in reducing presentation anxiety. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 1(2), 100-108.

EMDR Institute, INC. (n.d.). What is EMDR? Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/

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