Did you know that mentally performing an activity has physiological effects on our brains and bodies comparable to the effects of physically engaging in the activity? Mental rehearsal, or engaging all the senses to vividly imagine living out an experience with a successful outcome, actually creates new neural pathways in the same way that new pathways are created when physically undergoing the experience. This empowering technique utilizes our innate physiological ability to create the reality we want through neuroplasticity and allows us to overcome resistance to making positive changes.
In a study on mental rehearsal, one group was asked to physically perform a series of gym exercises. Their muscle strength at the end of the experiment increased 30%. Another group was asked to perform these same exercises in a mental rehearsal daily for the same amount of time. Their physical strength actually increased by 13.5%, without physically engaging in any exercise. In an experiment with basketball players, those who used mental rehearsal to practice their free throws improved almost as much as those who engaged in the physical practice of the same activity.
Mental rehearsal was first used by Olympic athletes to achieve peak performance, and is now used in all arenas, from business, fitness, goal setting, habit change and public speaking. I first used this technique (taught to me by my brilliant father) when I was a competitive equestrian for many years. By imaging the experience of myself and my steed perfectly navigating the complicated course of jumps a few times before each round, I felt more confident, relaxed and focused, and like I had done this completely new experience already with success. I now use this technique to confidently coach clients, to improve my sales techniques, and to maintain my regular yoga and gym practice.
Mental rehearsal is an incredible tool to use when reprogramming habits. With mental rehearsal, we can overcome resistance to disrupt a comfortable behavior pattern and replace it with the pattern that is going to get us closer to what we want. Because we as humans are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, by mentally rehearsing the wanted behaviors as a pleasurable experience with a pleasureable outcome, it naturally becomes our preferred choice.
If going to a yoga class after work twice a week is our desired habit, but sitting on the couch and eating snacks watching Netflix is currently what we do (and this activity can feel quite pleasurable), simply deciding to go to yoga instead is not always a compelling alternative. Even though eating snacks and watching TV is initially pleasurable, it always leads to the painful result of regret and feeling out of shape. The initial effort it takes to get ready for yoga and drive to the class may seem more painful than lying on the coach, but the result is always a pleasurable, glowy feeling of strength, calm and accomplishment. The overall goal of this practice is to link the pleasurable feeling of success with the desired outcome and build that connection into our neural structures.
By habitually mentally rehearsing the routine of getting ready for yoga, driving to the studio, taking the class and feeling amazing afterwards all as a positive pleasure-filled experience, we build the neural structures that make it nearly effortless to overcome the formerly engrained resistance. By linking pleasure with the outcomes we want, and noticing the pain of engaging in the behaviors that aren't aligned with our desired results, choosing wanted behaviors more easily becomes engrained into who we are.
When mentally rehearsing an experience, it is important to be "associated" in the experience rather than "dissociated". An associated experience is one in which you are looking through your own eyes and using all of your senses, instead of seeing it unfold as if you were watching a movie. The latter, or a dissociated experience is more akin to visualization and has specific benefits for different scenarios, but for the purposes of mental rehearsal, staying associated is key. Mental rehearsal for a desired outcome should be repeated daily to build the nueral connections that create the circuitry for new habits.
A Mental Rehearsal Step-by-Step Guide:
- *It may be beneficial to record your chosen rehearsed experience using your phone or computer.*
- Find a space where you will not be interrupted. Lie down and close your eyes. Being taking deep breaths and relaxing.
- Relax, center, and focus. Take deep breaths in and out, and imagine that all the stress is leaving your body on each exhale. Starting at your feet, imagine stress melting away. Work your way up- your legs, your torso, your chest, your arms, your neck, your jaw, your face- all the way to the top of your head- relaxing each body part and feeling stress melt into the surface below you. Allow your mind to be completely present and focused on deeply relaxing.
- Mentally tell yourself you are confident and that you have the ability to complete this task successfully. Repeatedly tell yourself, with confidence, that you will be successful.
- Imagine what you would see before you began the task. We are associated during this experience, looking out through our own eyes, hearing with our own ears, ect. rather than watching ourselves in a movie. For example, if you are imaging going for a run, first experience putting on your sneakers and tying them, taking one last sip of water, opening your front door and locking it behind you, and then beginning your run. See yourself successfully completing the steps to get you to what it is you want to practice.
- Remaining relaxed and focused, mentally rehearse each moment of successfully and pleasurably completing this task. Use all your senses to fully engage yourself in the experience- the temperature or conditions of the room or outdoors, the smells around you, the scenery or room you are in, the feelings of invigoration, gratitude, power, strength, etc. For example, if you are rehearsing going for a run, you would notice the sunshine of the day and feel the gentle warmth on your skin. You would smell the cut grass and freshness in the air. You would see the pavement under your feet and the surroundings of your running route. You would feel the sweat on your brow, cleansing your body. You would feel the burn of your muscles that lets you know you are getting stronger with each step. You would feel the clean air entering your lungs and renewing you from the inside out.
- If the task is something that you find hard or uncomfortable, notice how this discomfort is actually signaling that you are growing and flourishing with each moment.
- Imagine going through this entire process and completing the task with success and becoming the best version of you.
- Imagine yourself coming to the end of the task and celebrating your success- jump for joy, wearing a huge smile, saying out loud how amazing you feel.
- Open your eyes and smile. Congratulate yourself for completing this mental rehearsal, which will contribute to your success in the real situation. Remember that self-reinforcement is key to self-motivation.
- Repeat daily.