They say worrying does you no good, but worrying productively can actually get you through anything — whether it’s asking for a raise or running a big race. “Mental rehearsal” is a technique that athletes, musicians, doctors, soldiers and even astronauts use to prepare for the worst — and perform at their best. Here’s how to use it.
Illustration by Jim Cooke
How Mental Rehearsal Works
An athlete can use mental rehearsal to visualise running plays, thinking of the best ways to react to a defender’s actions. A soldier can run through their plan of attack and develop a contingency plan for when things go south. You may not be an athlete or a soldier, but the same process can be applied to almost anything you do in daily life.
We worry about things because we feel like we’re not fully prepared for them (even if we actually are). In its most basic form, mental rehearsal is a way to convince yourself that you are prepared. It’s the process of identifying the source of your worries, determining how you can adapt if things go bad, and “practising” all of your contingency plans in your mind until you feel so prepared that your worrying melts away.
Keep in mind, however, that mental rehearsal is not just self-affirmation or “positive thinking”. In fact, parts of it can be the exact opposite. Mental rehearsal is more similar to what Wellesley College Psychology Professor Julie Norem calls “defensive pessimism”:
When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong. What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy. It helps them direct their anxiety toward productive activity.
It might seem counter-intuitive to attack negative thoughts with more negative thoughts, but it can be effective to fight fire with fire. Positive thinking certainly has a place in any type of preparation, but only focusing on things going well could mean disaster when something goes wrong.
Acknowledge What You’re Feeling
The worst thing you can do when you’re really worried, is ignore how you feel. It’s OK to be worried about something. It means you care about it. Make sure you address it and determine if it’s something that’s even worth worrying about in the first place. You may not even be capable of changing what you’re worried about. There are plenty of stress-inducing things you can change for the better, however:
- A presentation or speech at work
- A big meeting with a potential client
- Asking your manager for a raise
- Visiting family
- When you’re nearing the end of a stressful project and every day feels like an ordeal.
- An upcoming test or exam
- Travelling for work or for pleasure
- Your own wedding
So if you find that what you’re worried about is something you can control, label your worry. Do you feel anxious? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you feel underprepared? By identifying exactly how you feel, you acknowledge that it’s there, and you can be more prepared to address it with your mental rehearsal.
Visualise Every Way Things Could Go Wrong
Now it’s time for a bit of that defensive negative thinking. Find a place where you won’t be disturbed, as if you were going to meditate. Grab a scrap of paper and a writing utensil, and try to keep your phone or other distracting devices away. You want to have total focus on this exercise.
Take some deep breaths to relax, and close your eyes if it help. Now start to walk through whatever it is you’re worried about from the very beginning. When you get to a point that has the potential for something to go wrong, try and imagine all the ways it could. From the tiniest mistake to the absolute worst case scenario, picture what it would be like (obviously, keep it within the normal limits of reality). For example, if you wanted to be better prepared for a presentation tomorrow, you would start with your intro:
- Flubbing words right off the bat
- The wrong slide pops up
- The microphone doesn’t work
- Draw a blank and freeze…
Continue through the entire day, event, or whatever it is, and do the same thing for every point something could go wrong. It helps to take quick notes and write it all down, but if that’s not an option, you can make a mental list too. This exercise does two beneficial things:
- You’re identifying and converting all of the little things you’re worried about into a more approachable form.
- You’re dumping them out of your mind and creating a to-do list of things you can mentally rehearse later on.
You might feel worried about your presentation in a general sense, but now you know the real narrowed down sources that explain why you’re worried. Addressing those little things is the key to feeling more prepared, which will make you feel less worried.
Develop Your Contingency Plan And Rehearse It
Now that you have all of the potential problems laid out, it’s time to figure out how to solve them. For each one of the issues you listed for each point, think of the best way you could handle it. If you can think of multiple solutions, use them. The more options you have, the more adaptable you become. Write them down as you go along so you have a game plan. If we continued with the presentation example, it might look something like this:
- Flubbing words right off the bat: acknowledge it (geez I can’t talk today), do vocal warm-ups beforehand.
- The wrong slide pops up: double check the slides beforehand, make a joke about it while you fix it (you didn’t see that yet!), summarise the other slides up to this point like this was supposed to happen.
- The microphone doesn’t work: apologise for the technical issues and get things straightened out, be louder until someone can get it working.
- Draw a blank and freeze: excuse yourself and take a drink of water, take a deep breath and admit you had a brain fart.
With your contingency plans in place, imagine yourself doing each one. Rehearse it in your mind over and over until you don’t need your notes any more. By now you’ll probably start to feel a lot less worried about it. You have an answer to all the unknowns you could think of, and you’ve put them into practice mentally so your mind knows where to go if one of them comes up.
Add Other Essential Elements Into Your Rehearsal
With your contingency plan rehearsed and ready for prime time, it’s time to take it to the next level. To prepare yourself further, begin to add in the other elements that will be present. After all, you probably won’t be sitting alone in a quiet room when it’s time for the real thing. Clinical researcher Angie LeVan at the University of Pennsylvania suggests you try and paint the most accurate mental picture you can:
Imagine the scene in as much detail as possible. Engage as many of the five senses as you can in your visualisation. Who are you with? Which emotions are you feeling right now? What are you wearing? Is there a smell in the air? What do you hear? What is your environment?
Emotions in particular can be hard to imagine, but as former Navy SEAL and author Eric Greitens explains in Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, it’s vital to bring realistic emotions into your rehearsing:
When you mentally rehearse, don’t imagine success falling into your lap. Imagine everything: the tingling at the back of your neck, the fear in the pit of your stomach… The goal of mental rehearsal isn’t to fill your head with happy thoughts about the future, but to prepare yourself to succeed in the real world.
When you visualise everything with detail and feeling, you can get a better handle of what it will really be like. If you think you’ll be in a suit and tie, imagine how that feels (or really put one on). If you think you’d be nervous, try to incorporate that too.
Think about your physical environment as well. Are you sitting or are you standing? If you’ll be moving around, adding movement to your rehearsal can help a great deal. Athlete and author Christopher Bergland suggests that movement will let you solidify your routine more:
During mental rehearsal, you want to flex both hemispheres of the cerebrum by using your imagination while simultaneously engaging the left and right hemispheres of the cerebellum by using ‘muscle memory.’ Adding movement to mental imagery engages all four hemispheres which gives anybody the opportunity to take his or her ‘fluid’ performance to a level of superfluidity.
The more real you can make your mental rehearsals feel, the more you’ll realise how ready you are. By the time you have to actually get up in front of people, talk to your boss, walk down the aisle, or even host your kid’s birthday party, it will feel like second nature to you.
Visualise Everything Going Perfectly
You just spent a lot of time and energy expecting the worst, but with that in check, you can start to visualise things going the other way. Right before it’s prime time, go through your mental rehearsal one more time, but imagine everything going perfectly. You have all your contingencies in place, so now you want to pump yourself up and get excited.
The video above shows a gymnast mentally rehearsing a move right before she tries it. She imagines it going perfectly over and over so she knows exactly what that will look and feel like. You’re not getting your hopes up, or forgetting what you’ve already prepared. You’re just looking at what the future could be. Consider it your dress rehearsal before opening night. Visualise it from your own eyes and believe that you’re now ready, no matter what happens. You’re in control, your worry is gone, and you may even have some new-found courage.
Keep in mind, however, that some level of failure is still a possibility, so keep your expectations in check. Mental rehearsal isn’t a magical solution to making everything perfect, but the level of preparedness it brings can make it so when those failures come, damage control is already built in. You’ve eliminated the unknown for the most part, and that alone will help keep your worries from consuming you.